The Relationship Between Addiction and Military/First Responders

First responders and military personnel are subject to some of the most demanding and dangerous situations in our society today. These heroes provide support, medical assistance, mental and physical health care, and a stabilizing presence both here and abroad. These duties are essential to society and American interests and safety around the world.

The Relationship Between Addiction and Military/First Responders

First responders and military personnel are subject to some of the most demanding and dangerous situations in our society today. These heroes provide support, medical assistance, mental and physical health care, and a stabilizing presence both here and abroad. These duties are essential to society and American interests and safety around the world. 

However, these responsibilities do not come without great physical and emotional risk. Our troops and first responders are constantly exposed to violence, sleep deprivation, and life-threatening situations. These stressful situations take a serious toll on their own, and can also lead to dangerous coping mechanisms such as drug and alcohol use

No matter the profession or walk of life one inhabits, stress has proven to push people to various coping mechanisms. Coping with substance abuse is called self-medicating.  When a person turns to alcohol or drugs for self-medicating purposes, they are more likely to become dependent upon that substance than an individual that is a recreational user. 

50% of those with mental health disorders are thought to be affected by addiction. Due to near-constant stress and trauma, it’s common for first responders and military personnel to develop co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Without treatment, these can be devastating.

Substance Use and Police Officers

Due to the nature of their job, police officers face extreme stress and even trauma on almost a daily basis. In addition to placing themselves and their colleagues in harm’s way, they may also often witness disturbing or violent behavior, such as murder, suicide, or traffic fatalities. Police officers are the first on the scene at domestic violence calls, drug deals, and everything in between. Also, law enforcement officers experience work-related stress regarding their roles and reception in the community. 

According to research, police officers are at a significantly higher risk of substance abuse (drug and alcohol) and mental health issues than the general population. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that many cops have easy access to illegal drugs when they arrest drug dealers or respond to overdose calls.

Studies show that police officers working in urban areas use drugs and alcohol at a “high-risk” level as often as 10-15% of the time. Male officers are almost twice as likely to be affected but female officers are not immune. Researchers attribute the high alcohol consumption rates among police officers to both social and stress-induced drinking behaviors. The most important contributor to alcohol consumption among police officers, however, is the stress and trauma officers face daily in the line of duty.

Substance Use and Firefighters

Firefighters spend their days braving dangerous fires and other situations to save civilian lives. The nature of this job presents firefighters with many of the same potential for trauma as police officers. Also, increased risk of injury from burns, smoke inhalation, traffic accidents, and other on-the-job injuries make firefighters more likely to turn to substances to cope or need painkillers to mend. 

The long 24-hour shifts and exposure to trauma calls lead many firefighters to develop mental health conditions such as post-traumatic-stress disorder, acute stress disorder, and depression. Many individuals struggling with these issues then turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of symptom relief. Studies have shown that up to 29% of firefighters engage in alcohol abuse and as many as 10% of firefighters may be currently abusing prescription drugs.

Rates of binge drinking and prolonged alcohol use are higher among firefighters than the general population. In addition to job stress, there are social factors that contribute to the high rates of dangerous alcohol consumption. Many firefighters also report using alcohol as a means of “de-stressing” or winding down after a hard shift. Increased use of alcohol as a coping mechanism leads to increased rates of alcoholism. 

Substance Use and Paramedics/EMT

Paramedics and EMTs are emergency medical service technicians that work in ambulances, fire rescue, and other medical trauma teams. These professionals often work 24-hour shifts and commonly face life or death situations. They face many hazards on the job including traumatic exposure to violence and extreme health issues. Like other emergency workers, they are at significantly higher risk for physical and mental health concerns. 

According to studies, as many as 36% of EMS workers suffer from depression and the majority of them also suffer from sleep deprivation. These workers are also at a higher risk of PTSD due to their constant exposure to potentially traumatic events.   

Drug abuse is much higher among paramedics and EMTs compared to other emergency responder professions. While research has not yet come to conclusions as to why it is believed to be a combination of factors including easy access to prescription medications and high-stress exposure levels. Like other first responders, EMT’s encounter severe stress that may push them to cope using substances such as alcohol. 

Substance Use and Military Personnel

Active-duty and retired members of the armed forces also face substance use problems. As many as 15% of the veterans that seek medical care from the U.S. Veteran’s Administration meet the criteria for a diagnosis of a substance abuse disorder, which puts them at a higher risk than the general population. 

Military personnel, in both war-time and peace-time, face the stress of being separated from their families, multiple deployments, potential combat trauma, and more. Military personnel is also significantly more likely to struggle with PTSD than the general population. As many as 20% of veterans from recent wars return home showing symptoms of PTSD. The stress of coping with PTSD symptoms can often push people towards substance abuse, and the presence of both disorders may represent a co-occurring condition. 

First Responder Behavioral Health

Due to the nature of their job and the constant contact with stressful and even traumatic experiences, first responders are at significant risk for behavioral health issues. Dealing with natural disasters, violent accidents, death, disease, and even terror attacks put our first responders in harm’s way often. 

This trauma can often lead to long hours, sleepless nights, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.  First responders and military personnel are at significantly higher risk of behavioral health disorders than the general population. Some of the most common disorders experienced by this population segment are:

  • Depression
  • Substance Abuse
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Military Personnel


For many of our veterans, lingering mental and physical health effects hamper their attempt to return to “normal life”, even after their deployment ends. PTSD is the most common lingering effect on our servicemen and women. It is very hard to overcome the symptoms of PTSD, especially without professional assistance.

But you can feel better, and you can start today, even while you’re waiting for professional treatment. There are many things you can do to help yourself overcome PTSD and come out the other side even stronger than before. Before you can begin treatment for PTSD, however, it is important to recognize and diagnose it. If you or your loved one are suffering from any of the following symptoms, you may have PTSD:

  • Constant reminders of the traumatic experience-including distressing thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks. These reminders may induce a physical response such as panic attacks, shaking, or increased heart rate. These reactions, in turn, can push someone to withdraw from relationships or social situations. 
  • Negative changes to your thoughts and mood- such as negative self-image, constant guilt, and shame, baseless fear, or paranoia. This also can include a decreased ability to experience positive emotions.
  • Being on edge all the time- jumpy, or emotionally reactive, as indicated by irritability, anger, reckless behavior, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, and increased alertness.
  • Extreme avoidance of things that could potentially remind you of the traumatic event- including people, places, thoughts, or situations associated with the harmful memories. This may include withdrawing from friends and family and lost interest in hobbies or everyday activities.

Treatment for First Responders and Military Personnel

The treatment of substance use disorders among emergency service professionals is similar to that of treating the general population. Treatment includes individual therapy, group therapy, 12-step programs, nutritional therapy, family therapy, drug and alcohol detox, and additional ancillary services in either an inpatient or outpatient treatment setting. The treatment has also been proven to be significantly beneficial when it is grouped with other individuals from similar occupations. 

PTSD treatment focuses on individual counseling, with support from family and friends. Identifying triggering situations and using proven therapeutic techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help first responders overcome PTSD. Due to Covid-19, most of these therapies are now available online as well. 

First responders who exhibit symptoms of multiple disorders-such as substance abuse disorder and PTSD-may have a “dual-diagnosis” (or co-occurring disorder). The presence of two or more disorders necessitates a unique approach from a specialist familiar with dual diagnosis treatment. While many of the same treatment modalities may be used, it is important to separate symptoms and treat them individually. 

Begin Your Treatment Journey at Unity Behavioral Health Today

At Unity Behavioral Health, our trained professional staff are standing by to help you or your loved one overcome addiction. Whether you need the intensely supervised care of our inpatient or detoxification options or the flexibility of our outpatient treatment, we have an option that can help you begin your journey today. Contact us today to begin your journey to sobriety!


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