First responders and addictions: overcoming adversity through peer support
First responders are a breed unto themselves. Like a loyal brotherhood, they learn quickly how to lean on each other through thick and thin, both inside and outside the work environment. Some have found effective ways to manage their unusually intense job stress and the sheer trauma of having to deal with what they do on a daily basis; some are not quite as able. For the latter group, drinking or drugs can become a coping mechanism. As time goes by, if they cannot manage to find better ways of coping with their stress, this could lead to addiction, both physical and psychological.
Sadly, once an addiction has taken hold, many first responders feel that they will be diminished in the eyes of their peers. This conception oftentimes prevents them from reaching out to the very people who will understand best. In this situation, the brotherhood that firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders naturally comprise is actually one of the greatest benefits they can access in such a crisis.
Stress and trauma comes with the territory
In a study conducted by FEMA and funded by the American Heart Association, it was discovered that 85% of full-time/career firefighters and more than 70% of volunteers have drank to excess within the previous 30 days leading up to the study: for the full-timers, it was about 10 days per month, amounting to half of their scheduled days off. Volunteers reported slightly higher numbers at 12 days per month.
To put these numbers into context, they were compared to non-first responders, or the total number of males who had consumed alcohol in the past month. In these individuals, drinking to excess was equivalent to about half or less than half of what the firefighters reported.
With the realization that addiction and alcohol abuse is rampant among firefighters, many station houses are beginning to develop proactive methodologies to provide firefighters with viable support options. Realizing that their fellow firefighters are the best equipped to provide help within their own ranks, formalized peer support programs are emerging as the treatment of choice, prior to seeking out rehab or more intensive therapies.
Evidence-based treatments favor peer support
A multitude of studies on peer support have proven its efficacy time and time again. Peer support is also a significant aspect of recovery in 12-step programs, where it advocates turning to others who are experiencing the same type of distress in order to provide peer-to-peer support. After all, nobody understands what you’re going through more than somebody who has stood in your shoes.
Peer support is known to improve coping skills and reduce emergency-room visits and hospital stays. In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs in the majority of states recognize peer support as evidence-based intervention.
The difference between peer support and more conventional interventions and drug therapies is that it does not simply treat the symptoms, it helps people connect more meaningfully with their own wellness and recovery. Those who have participated in active peer support programs often report less need to access acute care services and an overall improvement in their quality of life.
LINE2design, Inc. & LINE2EMS: supporting first responders with front-line solutions
Come back next week for a follow-up and read more about firefighter peer support in Part II. If you would like to learn more about LINE2EMS, drop us a line today; we’d love to connect.