Commonly Abused Substances

First responders, like police officers, fire fighters, EMTs, and paramedics, all work high-stress jobs that can have many negative effects on someone’s mental health and well-being. Due to the negative effects caused by these jobs, first responders drug abuse is common, and it can affect people’s job performance, not to mention life, in many ways. While drug addiction can affect someone’s life in many ways, it can be treated, and those struggling can get the help that they need to recover.

There are many commonly abused substances that first responders may turn to when they are struggling. Many of these substances can have dangerous effects on their bodies, and first responders drug abuse can affect their lives in many ways.

Drug Abuse Among First Responders


While marijuana is legal for recreational or medical use in many places around the United States, abuse of this substance can still affect someone’s life in many ways. Marijuana does not build a physical dependence, so someone who takes it will not experience physical withdrawal symptoms if they stop using it or only use it infrequently.
However, it can still create a psychological dependence that causes someone to feel like they can’t function normally without being high. First responders drug abuse may include marijuana as a way to cope with the day-to-day stress they experience on the job. While marijuana use may seem to help in the moment, this can become a dangerous coping mechanism that only masks underlying mental health issues or the trauma that a first responder has experienced.
First responders may also use marijuana to deal with physical aches or pains that are accrued throughout the day while working these jobs. These positions can take a toll on someone’s body and lead to injuries. However, using marijuana to mask the effects of pain or injuries that are accrued at work can also be dangerous. Additionally, this behavior may not even solve the actual problem in the long run.


Alcohol abuse is also common amongst first responders. Many people who work stressful jobs like this may turn to alcohol as a way to cope and block out traumatic incidents they may have witnessed or experienced throughout the day. Unfortunately, alcohol only masks the underlying problems, and it can even worsen them. Alcohol addiction is dangerous, especially because it can cause many negative long-term impacts on a first responder’s life and overall job performance.

Opiate Painkillers

Opiate painkillers are highly addictive, making them relatively a prominent aspect of first responders drug abuse. First responders can accrue pain and injuries during their everyday tasks at work. If a first responder is injured, a doctor may prescribe opiate painkillers to help them recover. However, these drugs can be very addictive and lead to long-term drug abuse.

First responders may also use opiate painkillers as a way to cope with the everyday stress that they experience at their jobs. However, abuse of these substances is very dangerous, and abusing opiates will only mask the real underlying mental health problems that someone may be experiencing.


Benzodiazepine drugs, like Xanax and Valium, are commonly prescribed for the treatment of anxiety symptoms. First responders may develop symptoms of anxiety due to high levels of stress and the risk that is taken daily by people in these job positions.
To help with anxiety, first responders may even get a prescription for benzodiazepine medications. However, these drugs can become addicting if they are misused or abused, which can put first responders at a high risk of addiction if they begin using benzodiazepines to cope with the daily stresses of work.

The Role of First Responders

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Why Do First Responders Start Abusing Drugs and Alcohol?

First responders drug abuse is common for several reasons, any of which can cause many negative effects on the lives and overall health of those who abuse substances.
Drug Abuse Among First Responders

Work Related Stress

Work-related stress is a common cause of drug abuse. First responders may use drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress that they experience every day while they are at work. Over time, leaning on drugs and alcohol can cause someone to a dependence and make them feel like they can’t function normally without taking drugs.


First responders may witness and experience many traumatic events while they are working. This trauma can have many negative effects on their mental health and well-being. The effects of PTSD can lead to binge drinking and drug addiction in first responders who don’t get the proper help or support to deal with the trauma they have gone through.

What is PTSD?

Challenges First Responders Face When Seeking Help

First responders may face several challenges that prevent them from seeking or receiving the proper help and support that they need when they are struggling with drug abuse.


First responders work jobs that are stressful and time consuming. This may leave them very little time and energy to seek help when they are struggling with drug addiction. Their busy lives may even prevent them or their loved ones from seeing the full extent of the problem.

Fear of Judgment

Like many who struggle with addiction, first responders may grapple with a fear of judgement when thinking about seeking help for their addiction. Due to their jobs, they may come into contact with other people who struggle with addiction, and they may enforce laws pertaining to drug use. As such, people in this line of work may fear that someone finding out they struggle with drug addiction will have a negative impact on their image.

Mental Illness

Mental illness can have a number of negative effects on someone’s life. The symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders can make someone feel very fatigued and withdrawn from everyday activities. This can lead to people not seeking help because they lack the energy or fear that it won’t help them.


Symptoms of PTSD can keep first responders from seeking help. PTSD can cause fear and doubts about the ability to get help and support for drug addiction or mental health issues. First responders with PTSD may also become withdrawn from daily activities, which can make it difficult for people to know they are struggling.


Depression can leave someone feeling very fatigued and hopeless about their situation. Low levels or energy or motivation caused by symptoms of depression can make it difficult to seek help and support.

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse can create many negative habits and behaviors that make it difficult for someone to seek help. First responders struggling with addiction may also feel like the drugs are helping them cope with their situation, which can make it difficult for them to stop taking substances.

Suicide Rate

First responders are at a high risk of suicide due to the stress levels and risky nature of their positions. According to the CDC, first responders are approximately 1.39 times more likely to die by suicide than someone in the general public.1

Signs of Drug and Alcohol Abuse in First Responders

There are many common signs and symptoms of drug abuse to look for in first responders. Knowing the signs and symptoms is important if you think you or someone you love may be struggling with addiction.
Drug Abuse Among First Responders

Early Abuse Signs

Common early signs of first responders drug abuse are:
  • Drowsiness
  • Irrational behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Slurred speech
  • Sweating
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sleeping at unusual times of the day

Severe Abuse Signs

More severe signs of first responders drug abuse are as follows:2
  • Withdrawing from daily activities
  • Extreme anxiety or paranoia
  • Financial difficulties
  • Having trouble at work or not showing up to work
  • Insomnia
  • Relationship problems
  • Risky behaviors
  • Significant weight loss or gain

Alcohol Use and Police Officers

Alcoholism in first responders is not uncommon. Police officers may be at a higher risk of alcohol use due to the stress and trauma that the job can cause.

Disturbing Events

There is a high risk of police officers experiencing or witnessing disturbing events while they are at work. Over time, this can take a toll on a police officer’s mental health and overall well-being.

Work-Related Stress and Trauma

When police officers are at work, they are put under high levels of stress as a result of performance expectations and innately risky situations. Traumatic incidents can also impact police officers a lot, and these experiences can lead to many negative effects.

Easy Access to Drugs

Due to the people that police officers often come into contact with while they are working, it is not unusual for them to find drugs at crime scenes, meaning they can potentially have easy access to drugs. This can make police officers more susceptible to drug abuse if they decide to experiment with addictive substances.


A 2010 study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that 11% of male officers and 16% of female officers were deemed to be at risk of alcohol abuse.3 Studies have also shown that officers who experience critical events on the job are much more likely to drink as a way to cope with the trauma they have experienced.

A Further Discussion on Stress and First Responders

Substance Use and Paramedics/EMTs

Substance use is also common in paramedics and EMTs. Paramedics alcohol abuse or drug addiction can have many negative effects that impact their well-being and performance on the job.

Traumatic Psychological Risks

While on the job, paramedics and EMTs may experience or witness many traumatic incidents. They may be put in high stress situations at any moment throughout the day where they must treat patients who are in critical condition. This can have inherent psychological risks on paramedics, which may have many long-lasting effects.

Mental Health Risks

Due to the high stress environment that paramedics find themselves in throughout the day, they can develop many mental health issues. Mental health risks can affect paramedics and EMTs in many ways, causing lasting negative impacts on their overall well-being.


According to SAMHSA, paramedics can suffer from a number of mental health issues that can make them more susceptible to struggling with addiction, along with other lasting impacts on their well-being. In fact, 72% of EMS workers suffer from sleep deprivation, 36% suffer from depression, and 20% suffer from PTSD.3

Substance Abuse and Firefighters

Firefighters are also more susceptible to substance abuse and mental health issues due to the stress and the trauma they endure on the job.4
Drug Abuse Among First Responders

On-the-Job Injuries

Firefighters may sustain injuries while they are on the job since their daily tasks can be risky and taxing on the body. Due to these on-the-job injuries, drugs may be medically prescribed to help them manage their pain. However, many painkillers, like opioid medications, can be addictive if they are abused or used for a long period of time. Fire fighters may also try to use substances as a way of coping with nagging aches and pains that they experience throughout the day.


Firefighters may also undergo a number of traumatic incidents or witness traumatic events while they are working. This can lead to many mental health issues that could cause them to lean on drugs or alcohol to cope.

Fire Station Culture

Fire station culture is also said to encourage drinking as part of a team activity after work. This can lead to more firefighters being encouraged to drink, which can create a few poor habits that may lead to addiction.


PTSD caused by traumatic incidents on the job can also lead to someone wanting to cope with drugs or alcohol. The effects of PTSD can leave firefighters in a poor mental state in which they don’t know where to turn to for help.


The stress that firefighters experience everyday can also cause symptoms of anxiety. Over time, firefighters may lean on drugs or alcohol to help them stay calm or relaxed despite feeling anxious about work or events they have experienced.

Self-Care Tips for First Responders and Firefighters

There are many things first responders can do to provide themselves with proper self-care when working in these high stress positions.
  • Eat healthy and exercise regularly.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol use.
  • Limit working hours.
  • Practice deep breathing or mindfulness techniques.
  • Talk to family, friends, supervisors, or teammates about their experiences or feelings.
  • Work in teams while on the job.
  • Write in a journal.5

Job Security and Addiction Treatment for First Responders

Some first responders may be hesitant to seek treatment due to a fear regarding how it will affect their job security. Plus, not all first responders know what systems are in place to get them the help and support that they need.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans With Disabilities Act was put into place to prohibit discrimination on people who struggle with a disability. Generally, addiction is covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act, meaning it can help someone receive proper treatment without the fear of losing their job as a result.

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family and Medical Leave Act is a law that requires employers to provide job-protected unpaid leave to employees with qualifying medical conditions. First responders who struggle with addiction may qualify for protection under the FMLA if a healthcare provider recommends treatment.

Treatment to Help First Responders

There are many treatment options available for first responders drug abuse in first responders.
Drug Abuse Among First Responders


Detox is generally the first step in the treatment process. When someone suddenly stops taking an addictive substance, they will likely experience withdrawal symptoms, which can lead to many side effects, ranging from uncomfortable to life-threatening. With the proper support and treatment, medical professionals can ensure that the detoxification process is as safe and as comfortable as possible.

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab is often a good option for those who are struggling with addiction. Inpatient rehabilitation allows you to live at a treatment center for a duration of time while you detox, receive therapy, and work on a long-term plan for success. Inpatient treatment will keep you in a structured environment where around-the-clock support is available.

Outpatient Rehab

For those with a less severe addiction, outpatient rehab may be the best fit. It is also great for people who don’t want to leave their family or work responsibilities behind while they receive treatment since outpatient treatment involves going to a treatment center at designated times throughout the week to receive detox treatment and attend therapy. It also prioritizes working on a long-term recovery plan.


Therapy is an important aspect of most treatment programs. Working with a therapist will help you determine which thoughts and behaviors in your everyday life are contributing to addiction. Your therapist will then teach you about coping mechanisms that you can use to deal with the stresses of life in a healthy manner, without the use of drugs or alcohol. Therapy can also be helpful in terms of discovering underlying conditions or traumas that may be contributing to the addiction.

Support Groups

Support groups can be a useful part of a treatment program because they often create a sense of community. A support group can provide you with useful resources, and group members will often share their experiences so you don’t have to feel like you’re going through everything alone.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment may also be incorporated during the treatment process as a way of easing withdrawal symptoms or preventing a relapse. Many medications have been created and studied to help with addiction treatment, thereby making the recovery process so much easier.

Resources for First Responders

There are many resources available to first responders who are struggling with addiction.

PTSD Foundation of America

The PTSD Foundation of America was designed to provide resources for combat veterans and first responders who struggle with PTSD as a result of their service. The PTSD Foundation of America can provide many resources to first responders who struggle with addiction, helping them get on the right track towards recovery.6

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

AA is a useful resource for first responders with alcoholism. It is a support group that can help members who struggle with alcoholism find a structured support system with others who are working towards the same goal.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

There is a higher rate of suicide amongst first responders when compared to the suicide rate of the general public due to the high stress and trauma that may be experienced on the job. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides support for people who are in distress. You can call the hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is open 24 hours per day ,so you can always find someone to talk to when you are in need.7

The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army is a care and support agency that uplifts veterans and first responders especially. For first responders struggling with addiction, there are many resources available through the Salvation Army.

Employee Assistance Programs

Employee assistance programs are available for first responders as well. These programs typically provide support for those who are struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse, stress, and more. Plus, these programs are confidential, and they can provide people with counselors and psychologists who can adequately help them.