Alcohol and Drugs: Problems That Won’t Go Away on Their Own

By Michael Healy

Substance abuse and addiction are ongoing problems among first responders. For emergency response professionals, as well as for anyone who struggles with a drug or alcohol use disorder, the causes are often varied and complex.

For many firefighters, police officers, EMTs, and other first responders, the urge to drink or use drugs may be related to the job they do every day. Experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of trauma on the job is exceedingly common. The symptoms of PTSD can be significant and severe. Many prefer to attempt to escape them by drinking or getting high rather than seeking treatment, believing that the problems may go away on their own in time. Unfortunately, chronic drug abuse may actually serve to:

  • Increase the severity of PTSD symptoms experience
  • Lengthen and/or increase the frequency of PTSD episodes
  • Cause the new problem of addiction
  • Make it more difficult to connect with therapy and other treatment help

Drinking and drugs are not the answer to difficult emotions experienced due to trauma on the job. Is drinking or drug use becoming a problem for you?

Signs of a Problem That Would Benefit from Treatment

How do you know when you’re drinking has moved beyond “normal” and moved into the danger zone? It’s not always readily apparent, and it may take some introspection and honest self-assessment to identify a drug or alcohol abuse problem in yourself. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you explore the question:

  • Do you drink or use drugs on the job?
  • Do you often drink more than you intend to? That is, do you often start out saying you’ll only have one but ultimately drink until you are drunk?
  • Do you use any illegal substances or abuse a prescription given to you, a family member, or friend?
  • Do you have problems with your significant other due to your behavior while under the influence?
  • Do you ever drive while under the influence?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, it can indicate a substance abuse problem that requires your immediate attention. If you are unable to quit on your own, an addiction issue is indicated and treatment is recommended.

Treatment to Address All Issues

When undergoing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, it is important that all issues contributing to the disorder are addressed. For example, if you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD and symptoms related to that disorder contribute to your urge to drink or get high, taking part in a treatment program that can provide treatment for both of these co-occurring disorders is recommended. Similarly, if you are struggling in your relationship, or if your use of alcohol and other drugs has caused you to have legal problems or problems at work, these issues should also be addressed in the course of treatment.

Getting the support you need to heal on all fronts is the best way to increase your ability to get back on track and focused on the things that are most important to you.

Note: If you or a member of your department needs immediate assistance, call the Fire/EMS Helpline at 1-888-731-FIRE (3473).
Mike Healy, CEAP, LAP-C, SAP, has over 40 years in the volunteer fire service and is a current and past chief. He is a member of the Rockland County, NY, Critical Incident Stress team, is the coordinator of Fire Education at the Rockland County Fire Training Center, and is a New York State Fire Instructor. He is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional, a Labor Assistance Professional-Certified, and a Substance Abuse Professional. He retired as Clinical Director of the NYCTA-TWU Assistance Program and now serves as a treatment consultant for American Addiction Centers.