Why Addiction is so Common for Military Personnel and First Responders

November 5th, 2019

Military personnel and first responders experience a great deal of stress in their day to day work lives. Daily, they are placed in life-threatening situations and are exposed to unforgettable trauma. The nature of this work leads to high susceptibility to trauma-induced disorders including Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). The constant exposure to trauma, life-threatening conditions and high-stress environments also leads to many using alcohol and drugs to help cope with the job. The combination of the daily stresses of the job and the prevalence of developing mental disorders leads to a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse for those in these fields. Addiction is a common issue for first responders and military personnel alike. 

Why Is Addiction So Prevalent For First Responders?

 Addiction is often a common issue when it comes to stressful occupations. Many find that substances namely alcohol are the only way they can cope with the rigors and stresses of their work. Studies on the most stressful jobs consistently rank enlisted military personnel, firefighters and police officers in the top three. Unfortunately, the correlation between addiction and first responders should come as no surprise based on what those in these occupations experience daily. 

Studies by The National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that among paramedics, police officers and firefighters, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance. Alcohol also stands as the most commonly abused substance among military personnel. Generally, illicit drug use is rarely cited as a major cause of addiction in these fields.

While illicit drugs remain as one of the lesser-used substances among first responders and military personnel, prescription drug use has skyrocketed among those in the field. Similar to much of the country, the abuse of opioids has grown rapidly among first responders and military personnel. Many first responders and military personnel experience excruciating injuries as a result of the physically demanding work they do. Such injuries often require prescriptions for opioid painkillers. 

The physically and mentally demanding work done by military personnel and first responders lead to substances such as alcohol and prescription drugs being used as a coping mechanism. Many often turn to drugs and alcohol due to few being able to understand what is experienced on the job. The stressful and traumatic nature of this line of work coupled with the need for a coping mechanism leads to a higher chance of addiction. A large factor of addiction that is overlooked is the prevalence of developing a mental health disorder during or after one’s time in the line of duty. The “invisible wounds” of service are often the deadliest.

Invisible Wounds

Often called the invisible wounds of war and service, mental health disorders from traumatic experiences are especially prevalent among military personnel. First responders are not exempt from these lasting wounds of the line of duty due to the traumatic nature of the situations they respond to. The daily exposure to stressful and traumatic situations has an effect on one’s mental health in both the short term and more gravely, the long term. The consistent mental toil and trauma experienced by first responders and military personnel often compound into lasting mental health disorders namely PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder. These disorders can develop at any time but often show up after years of trauma and stress when many are out of the line of duty. Other disorders such as burnout are also common and can have a lasting effect on first responders and military personnel. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is one of the most common mental health disorders experienced by military personnel, first responders, or anyone who has spent time in a line of work where trauma is common. PTSD is a condition that is caused by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It can develop from experiencing a single traumatic event or exposure to years of trauma. Developing anywhere from a month to years after the event, PTSD shows itself in a variety of symptoms. The most common symptoms are flashbacks to the event or events, severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts.

PTSD can be triggered by almost anything and can vastly alter one’s mental state, in most cases completely altering a person’s actions and emotions over time. Symptoms of PTSD only worsen over time and can leave someone almost unrecognizable to who they were before the traumatic event or events they experienced. The mental toll of PTSD and similar trauma-induced disorders often cause those affected to find a way to cope. Often, the most common coping method is the use of alcohol and drugs. 

Often times, first responders turn to alcohol as a means to fall asleep due to the effects of PTSD or intrusive thoughts. The combination of severe trauma-induced disorders and drug and alcohol use generally leads to dependency. Addiction can be especially detrimental for someone who is subsequently experiencing a serious mental health disorder such as PTSD. 

In a field where drug and alcohol abuse are already common, the prevalence of developing trauma-induced disorders only worsens the likelihood of addiction. This combination only increases the chances of addiction turning deadly. Studies have found that the combined effects of PTSD and drug or alcohol addiction can increase one’s risk of suicide to ten-times the national average. This fact is one of the main reasons addiction among first responders and military personnel who experience trauma daily is such a grave issue. 

For those who are first responders and military personnel, addiction is a common issue. This comes with the stressful and traumatic experiences that make up this line of work. The prevalence of mental health disorders such as PTSD only worsens the likelihood of addiction. If you or a loved one is experiencing the effects of a traumatic stress disorder it is important you seek help.