Firefighters are often known as our local heroes. Men and women whose jobs are to put out fires, save structures from destruction, rescue humans and animals alike from fires, car accidents, and a plethora of other situations. It shouldn’t be surprising that this type of occupation is stressful.
Firefighters are known for the bravery, for rushing towards the fire when everyone else is rushing out. But do they pay a mental and emotional price for this? Post-traumatic stress disorder, substance misuse, depression, and suicide are hard realities within the firefighter community. In 2014, a report from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation reported that a fire department is three times more likely to experience a suicide in a given year than a line-of-duty death.
As firefighters work through these difficulties they often don’t talk about the hardships of the job. They don’t want to show “weakness” to their co-workers, families, or the community, and often times they try to deal with these issues on their own. Coping mechanisms liked drugs and alcohol can seem like the easy and silent way to deal with these issues in the moment, but they can also lead to serious addictions.
Substance Use Disorders and Firefighters
Alcohol is the most popular substance used by public safety workers. The U.S. Firefighters association estimates that as many as 10 percent of firefighters may be misusing drugs. Past studies have shown 50 percent of career firefighters report binge drinking in the last month and 85 percent of career firefighters reported drinking in the last month. Compared with the general male population, 62 percent reported drinking alcohol in the last month – significantly lower than the fire service, and 23 percent of males reported binge drinking in the last 30 days – half the rate of binge drinking in the fire service.
Co-occurring disorders like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression can exacerbate or cause a substance use disorder. In 2015, a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders revealed that 46.8 percent of firefighters had suicidal thoughts or ideas. The same study said 15.5 percent of firefighters made a suicide attempt. Because firefighters are at a higher risk for these issues, they are also at a higher risk for a substance use disorder. All co-occurring disorders need specific diagnosis and treatment to heal from.
When we think of firefighters we think of heroes, but who is helping our local heroes heal?
Firefighter Recovery Center Opens in Maryland
To address the unique needs of firefighters who have a substance use disorder and/or another co-occurring disorder, Advanced Recovery Systems teamed up with the International Association of Fire Fighters to create the IAFF Center for Excellence. The center opened on March 5 in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, located 30 minutes from Washington D.C. It’s a 64-bed facility that started admitting patients on March 6. The setting is 15 acres of lush green forest with volleyball and basketball courts, a swimming pool, an outdoor reading and reflection area, and a fully equipped gym.
This firefighter recovery center is one of the first of its kind. IAFF treats exclusively IAFF members who struggle with drug misuse, alcoholism, and who need help overcoming behavioral health issues like PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
The staff is trained specifically to treat PTSD and are used to hearing about the experiences that firefighters commonly go through on the job. The staff uses evidence-based treatment that includes medication-assisted treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, and group therapy. The goal of treatment is to get these firefighters back to a fulfilling life and the career they love.
While substance use might seem like a quick fix for the trauma they have endured, it will only make things worse. Self-medication is a short-term fix only. One in 5 firefighters will struggle with behavioral health issues during their career. Letting one of these issues go untreated can be detrimental to a firefighter’s quality of life, their career, their family, and their relationships. Our heroes deserve the care they so freely give to us every day.
Nightmares aren’t supposed to last forever. Getting treatment isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It’s the feeling that you want your life to change, that you’re ready to embark on a new journey to happiness and health and being content in your own skin. Firefighters deserve that. Not just for their job, but for their lives.
Once again, it’s proven that addiction does not discriminate. Even brave, hardworking firefighters deal with substance use disorders and behavioral health issues like depression. It can happen to anyone of us. The IAFF Center for Excellence strives to give firefighters their lives back, to prove to them they aren’t alone, that the pain doesn’t have to last forever, and that there is a way out towards brighter days.