First Responders with PTSD, Suicide and Addiction
April 6, 2016

First Responders and PTSD, Suicide and Addiction

Witnessing traumatic events is all in a day’s work for first responders, but the constant exposure to trauma doesn’t inure police officers, firefighters, EMTs or other emergency personnel to the effects of these traumas. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a natural response to being the victim of or a witness to traumatic events, and first responders are at a particularly high risk of developing PTSD in the course of their career.

Symptoms of PTSD

It’s normal to have negative stress reactions after being involved in a traumatic event. These reactions may include:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Insomnia
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Negative changes in feelings or beliefs
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Difficulty concentrating

Known as acute stress disorder, these symptoms typically resolve over a period of weeks, but if they begin or persist beyond a month after the event, a diagnosis of PTSD will be made.

PTSD, Suicide Risk and Addiction

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cites a number of studies that have found an increased risk of suicide among those who suffer from PTSD. In particular, some of the known predictors of increased suicide risk in people with PTSD include frequent intrusive memories, impulsive behaviors, feelings of anger and using suppression to deal with stress.

In addition to an increased risk of suicide, those who suffer from PTSD may be at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. According to a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, up to half of all people in an addiction treatment program have a lifetime diagnosis of PTSD, and up to 42 percent currently suffer from the disorder.

Many who suffer from PTSD self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to suppress memories, cope with insomnia, enjoy dreamless sleep and reduce feelings of overwhelming stress or fear. But while using drugs or alcohol may seem to temporarily reduce the severity of PTSD symptoms, they almost always make them worse in the end.

This is particularly important in light of the relationship between substance abuse and suicide. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, substance abuse is one of the biggest risk factors for suicide.

Treatment is Essential

If you or a loved one is a first responder who suffers from PTSD or a substance use disorder—or both—you may be at an increased risk of suicide. Although getting professional help is often the hardest step to take in overcoming an addiction or addressing the haunting symptoms of PTSD, doing so is absolutely essential for restoring your physical and mental health, repairing damaged relationships and reducing your risk of suicide.

A treatment program that addresses co-occurring disorders like PTSD and addiction will ensure that while each illness is treated separately, treatments will be an integrated collaboration between each team so that the PTSD is treated in the context of the addiction and vice versa.

This type of dual diagnosis treatment helps to ensure a higher level of engagement in treatment, and it offers a better chance of enjoying long-term recovery from both disorders. A program that’s specifically designed for first responders takes into account the unique challenges, needs and risks associated with being exposed to trauma on a regular basis.

The sooner you get help, the sooner you can begin to work through negative emotions and address the issues that are contributing to your substance abuse and PTSD. A high-quality treatment program will equip you with the skills, techniques and strategies you need to cope with trauma and stress, and it will help you develop healthier ways of handling trauma moving forward.

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