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Firefighters & Addiction: When the Heroes Need Help

Many firefighters struggle with alcoholism or drug addiction. A 2012 study found that 56% of firefighters reported binge drinking in the past month. Other research shows that 29% of firefighters showed possible or probable signs of problematic alcohol use. There is a good explanation for why so many firefighters drink excessively or become addicted to drugs.

There are multiple reasons why firefighters develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Part of this relates to the stressful nature of their jobs. But it also comes down to the fact that many firefighters don’t reach out for help. They devote their lives to rescuing others, risking them in doing so. Part of a firefighter’s job involves running towards danger and comforting those experiencing trauma. Since they are expected to play this role, many firefighters can find it difficult to seek out support when they need it.

Why Do Some Firefighters Develop Alcoholism and Drug Addiction?

Trauma can increase your risk of addiction. This is because trauma often leads to intense emotional pain. And without knowing how to deal with this pain, people sometimes self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and the memories of their trauma. Many firefighters experience trauma—either on the job or off—and start abusing drugs or alcohol to cope.

Unresolved Childhood Trauma and Pain

Personal experience sometimes plays a role in why someone chooses to become a firefighter. Often, people who were abused or felt helpless during childhood grow up wanting to help others. Fire rescue work can be an attractive option in this respect. It’s a crucial service that helps protect people and save lives.

But in the course of their work, firefighters may find childhood trauma rising to the surface. This is because certain aspects of their work may trigger traumatic memories. These triggers can include seeing physical and emotional harm suffered by others or experiencing overwhelming emotions or physical symptoms that remind them of their trauma. In trying to deal with the emotional pain on their own, many firefighters drink and abuse drugs to numb the pain.

Cumulative Trauma

This is the kind of trauma that builds on a daily basis. It’s normal for everyday people to freak out when they are involved in a fire. But a firefighter can’t do this. They need to repress their emotions to do their job and put the fire out. While they may not show it, they still experience high levels of stress. When repeated on a daily basis, these distressing experiences can take a heavy toll.

Many firefighters struggle with mental health issues as a result of their work. Firefighters have an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and PTSD can lead to alcohol and drug use. Some firefighters drink to cope with the symptoms of PTSD.

Another reason firefighters drink heavily and turn to substance abuse is that some of them are sensation-seekers. Some firefighters get hooked on the adrenaline rush that comes with their jobs. Putting out fires and saving people can be a thrill, and life outside of work may feel unexciting in comparison. Searching for a similar high, some firefighters turn to alcohol and drugs.

A Firefighter’s Descent Into Addiction

With so many firefighters drinking at unhealthy levels, it’s important to examine how the use of alcohol can turn into a more serious problem. It appears that three things happen to firefighters:

  1. They remain silent about problems, and the unaddressed trauma eats away at them. Firefighters feel expected to be the “heroes.” This is why it can be hard for them to admit they’re in pain. They may work in an environment where there’s pressure to “suck it up” and not appear weak.
  2. Because they feel they can’t express their pain, they bury it in alcohol or substance abuse. Instead of talking openly about mental health issues, they try to bury the pain with heavy drinking or substance abuse. This can also cause issues in the home. Often times they do not feel their spouse needs to be troubled with the details of their traumatic workday. They don’t want to burden their spouse and children. However, if firefighters keep their pain from their spouses, their relationships can suffer.
  3. The addiction escalates, and unhealthy behavior takes over. If drugs or alcohol provide relief from their problems, a firefighter may drink or use drugs more frequently. This is how alcoholism or drug addiction can develop.

Help for Addicted Firefighters

When firefighters drink or use drugs in unhealthy ways, it’s important for them to seek the right treatment. By seeking effective treatment, firefighters can improve different areas of their life, including work, relationships and leisure time. The first step to recovery involves admitting that things are out of control. Asking for help doesn’t make someone any less of a hero. Next, firefighters struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction should know that they’re not alone. There are many firefighters who are struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse.

There are many different ways for firefighters’ drinking and drug use to be tackled. Finding healthy techniques for managing their mental health may keep firefighters away from the temptation of drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms.

Mental Health Treatment

Formal mental health treatment can help firefighters deal with their emotional issues in a healthy way. Trauma-based therapy, such as EMDR, can help fire rescue workers feel at peace with their traumatic memories. Another therapy that can help with PTSD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This helps a patient understand the connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. CBT then offers practical steps on how to change the way you think and act. Medication, in combination with therapy, is necessary for some people to achieve adequate relief from their mental health issues. Commonly prescribed drugs for PTSD include antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.

Mindfulness Meditation

Research shows that mindfulness meditation can help firefighters reduce their symptoms of PTSD and depression. A firefighter could practice mindfulness meditation after a fire or when they get home. The technique is quite simple. It involves sitting with eyes closed and paying attention to the breath, body, thoughts and feelings. By simply observing their physical and mental experiences, a firefighter can accept them in a calm manner. This helps reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Connecting with Other First Responders

By connecting with other first responders, a firefighter can feel supported and less alone in their struggles. After all, first responders know what it’s like to face tragedy and danger every day. Firefighters can seek out a peer mental health support group to discuss their emotional problems.

Alcoholism and Addiction Treatment at Promises

Promises offers a number of treatment options for struggling firefighters. We offer dual diagnosis treatment for firefighters who have both a substance use disorder and a mental health condition.

A firefighter drinking or using drugs in an out-of-control way could also benefit from an inpatient program. Inpatient drug rehab provides residential treatment (where you stay at the facility during recovery). When it comes to inpatient programs at Promises, we can provide:

  • Medical detox
  • Therapy and counseling
  • Drug education
  • 12-step programs
  • Support groups
  • Alternative therapies

Being a firefighter can be a challenging job. It often involves a great deal of emotional hardship. But this doesn’t mean that alcohol abuse or addiction has to follow. Firefighters can cope with their emotional difficulties without damaging their mental health. Promises helps firefighters tackle their addiction head-on, allowing them to thrive in their careers.

Posted on August 24, 2017 and modified on June 5, 2019

Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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