Raising awareness, removing the stigma of PTSD in first responders

Numbers suggest as many as 40% of first responders struggle with substance abuse to cope with trauma they've experienced on the job.

Posted: Oct 25, 2018 9:48 AM
Updated: Oct 25, 2018 7:00 PM

Police officers, sheriff deputies, firefighters, EMTs - just a few of the professions classified as first responders. These are the men and women who put their lives at risk to protect and help us in times of crisis. However, it is often these very same people whose own need for help is overlooked. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in first responders is a serious issue nationwide, and can often lead to dangerous behavior.

According to the Cincinnati National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 29% of firefighters engage in alcohol abuse. According to the U.S. Firefighters Association, 10% of all firefighters may currently be abusing drugs.

The numbers for EMTs are even more disturbing; 40% engage in high-risk drug and alcohol abuse. Another 20% of EMTs suffer from PTSD.

"We don't think about the trauma of their everyday lives," said Gina Thompson. She is the Clinical Coordinator for the First Responders Program at the Bradford Health Service campus in Warrior, south of Cullman. The facility offers in-patient treatment for various issues, among them is treatment for substance abuse and addiction for first responders.

Thompson said it is often easy to forget about the PTSD suffered by these first responders because they're a part of our everyday world. These are the men and women we see on a regular basis, unlike members of the military whom we associate with all-encompassing trauma in a far-off land.

"Police officers, and firefighters, and EMTs come on horrendous accidents. It is often the children, which are most disturbing to first responders," said Dr. Eric Hedberg. He works with first responders at Bradford on mental components that could feed addiction triggered by PTSD.

That is the very situation that occurred in the life of firefighter and paramedic, Robert Arrieta.

"Eight years ago, I had a little girl drown that was the same age and size of my son. Up to that point in my career, I saw a lot of things but that one got to me," said Arrieta.

Arrieta said he began to fall into the same trap that effects so many first responders; he began drinking.

"I didn't realize I was drinking more. I thought it was just going out with my friends. I was really trying to suppress things, and it doesn't work out that way."

Arrieta channeled his trauma into other, more productive things. First, he began to get tattoos.

"I didn't have any when I started this career, and as it progressed, it began to tell my story. So, the little girl that drowned, I have a rose tattoo in memory of her." It is just above a logo for Skulls for Hope, an organization founded by Arrieta. It is an outlet for people to reach out to help and interact with other first responders who might be struggling with signs of PTSD. He also sells small beaded bracelets, which include one skull-shaped bead.

He explained his response when he receives the inevitable question, "Why use a skull? Doesn't that mean death?"

"For me it represents the impermanence of life. Everything that lives, dies. We have to live every day to the fullest."

Thompson believes the greatest success for any first responder dealing with PTSD is going to be awareness among the general population.

"Of all the people in our world who need help, of course it is the people who are saving lives. So we need to save their lives. The stigma of PTSD and alcoholism is a barrier."

The program offered at Bradford is in-patient only and designed specifically for first responders coping with trauma through substance abuse. However, Bradford will work with non-addicted first responders to help them find other trained professionals to help them better deal with trauma they've experienced on the job.

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