First responders—police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians (EMTs)—are faced with some of the most traumatic human-caused or natural disasters due to the nature of their work. The responsibilities of first responders require them to put their lives on the line for the safety of others, applying additional pressure and strain to their personal lives.

Drugs and alcohol are often used as a coping mechanism for those dealing with stress and mental health issues. For first responders, drinking after a hard day of work can quickly become an everyday thing and develop into an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Seeking drug and alcohol rehab as a first responder can make some feel incompetent and powerless, steering them away from receiving the necessary treatment and care for addiction recovery.

Understanding the Unique Challenges Faced by First Responders in Rehab

An article on First Responders and Addictions recorded that approximately 25% of first responders suffer from various substance addictions ranging from alcohol use disorder (AUD) to prescription drug abuse and substance use disorders (SUDs). Studies have shown that first responders have twice the rate of alcoholism as the general population. Suicide is the number one cause of death for police every year, and nearly 120,000 officers are managing to work with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Dealing with PTSD as a first responder can feel neverending, especially if not properly treated with therapy and treatment programs. First responders might identify their PTSD and stress as “a part of the job” and refuse to seek treatment. Experiencing traumatic events daily can be challenging to deal with the consequences and find healing alone.

First responders experience unique challenges, such as exposure to trauma, stress and burnout, stigma and mental health, physical injuries, and struggles with work-life balance. Many emergency responders can experience these challenges all at once, putting them in a strenuous position—mentally and physically. People commonly use substances to cope with stress, depression, PTSD, chronic pain, and other mental health issues. Moreover, using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism harms someone’s health and well-being, especially with an occupation that requires them to be composed and alert. According to SAMHSA’s 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 9.2 million adults in the United States have a co-occurring disorder—the coexistence of a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder (SUD).

The Role of Rehab Centers in Supporting First Responders’ Recovery

Addiction treatment centers with first responders programs cater to the specific needs of first responders and their unique challenges. The stigma surrounding first responders and substance abuse can make it difficult to feel comfortable seeking treatment for substance addiction. The specific programs rehab centers offer for first responders consider all aspects of their personal life and work and home environment. Since co-occurring disorders are prevalent in first responders, treatment programs provide a variety of psychotherapies and behavioral therapies.

Types of therapies used in addiction treatment programs for first responders may include:

  • Individual therapy.
  • Group therapy.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Treatment centers prioritize creating a supportive environment for first responders in rehab to promote physical and emotional healing in long-term recovery.

Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment for First Responders in Rehab

With the nature of their work, first responders are often concerned about privacy and the impact on their reputations when in drug rehab. Addiction treatment centers prioritize confidentiality and ensure a safe and reliable environment for first responders to recover in without fear of exposure or judgment. Additionally, rehab centers offer education on addiction, relapse prevention strategies, and coping mechanisms specifically tailored to the needs of first responders. This education helps individuals understand the triggers they may face in their work environment, equipping them with practical tools for long-term recovery. Rehab centers may collaborate with employers to develop work reintegration plans for first responders to help transition after completing treatment. Relapse prevention and work reintegration planning provide emergency responders with ongoing support and monitoring to maintain their recovery.

Developing Effective Coping Strategies for First Responders in Recovery

Developing healthy coping strategies is essential for first responders to manage stress, maintain sobriety, and promote overall well-being. Establish clear boundaries with your work, personal, and social life to create time and space for rest and relaxation. First responders in recovery who practice self-care activities regularly can help reduce stress and promote overall well-being. Engaging in activities you enjoy, such as hobbies, exercise, or pursuing creative outlets, are examples of self-care. Taking care of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs is crucial for maintaining balance when recovering from addiction.

Drug rehab teaches how to replace unhealthy coping methods with healthier alternatives in recovery from addiction. Practical techniques in recovery may include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, journaling, or hobbies that promote relaxation and stress reduction. Building a support system and community in recovery will help facilitate your process and maintain sobriety. 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are support groups that enable recovery. Recovery support groups tailored to first responders discuss the experiences, challenges, and successes associated with first responder duties. Connecting with individuals who understand what you’re going through—addiction or first responders challenges— can provide valuable support and connection while recovering.

Promoting Physical and Emotional Healing for First Responders

Many first responders struggle with co-occurring mental health issues, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression. Rehab centers catering to first responders have trained professionals who specialize in providing comprehensive care for substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health disorders. Rehab centers with flexible treatment options may include intensive outpatient programs (IOP) or outpatient programs allowing individuals to attend therapy and treatment sessions while fulfilling their professional duties. Trauma-sensitive care in rehab centers recognizes the unique traumas that first responders may have experienced. Trauma therapists are trained to address trauma-related issues in a sensitive and specialized manner. Promoting physical and emotional healing in rehab can help first responders adopt healthy strategies to maintain sobriety and health in recovery.