First responders and members of the military are frequently exposed to traumatic events in the course of their duties. They suffer intense stress caused by what’s known as vicarious trauma, the emotional residue resulting from witnessing life-threatening injuries caused by fires, traffic accidents, violent crimes, or combat. And of course, law enforcement officers and military personnel come under direct attack themselves as well.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists a number of conditions as concerns for those serving in the military that largely apply to first responders as well. Most importantly, the frequent exposure to trauma results in a significant number of cases of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Traumatic events, such as military combat, assault, disasters, or sexual assault can have long-lasting negative effects such as trouble sleeping, anger, nightmares, anxiety, and substance misuse. If untreated, PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders can be the result.
If recurring stress and the resulting mental health problems do not receive professional attention, patients are often tempted to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. Many studies have shown a strong relationship between PTSD and substance use disorders (SUDs) in both civilian and military populations. According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, “more than 2 of 10 veterans with PTSD also have SUD,” and about a third of veterans seeking treatment for a SUD also have PTSD.
Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol will eventually exacerbate the mental health issues that led to substance misuse in the first place. People with SUD tend to self-isolate, intensifying the desire to use addictive substances. Unprocessed trauma, depression, loneliness, and escalating substance misuse may become overwhelming.
About 20 veterans commit suicide every day. The primary enemy most veterans face after service is not war-related trauma but loneliness, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Yale University and the US Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD, social isolation, depression, and anxiety disorders require a sophisticated and comprehensive treatment approach. “To promote veteran mental health, there are many effective steps that can be taken: Increase access to evidence-based psychotherapies, the treatments that have the strongest scientific support. Address the egregious staffing shortage at VA hospitals across the country, the health care lifeline for many veterans. But in this moment of unprecedented collective suffering, perhaps the most important thing we can do is finally begin an expansive national conversation about mental health,” recommended Dr. Julia DiGangi, a Chicago-based neuropsychologist, in a recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune.
Like other patients with addiction and co-occurring mental health issues, first responders and members of the military need treatment that addresses their particular needs. On average they are exposed to more trauma than other Americans and are consequently at a higher risk of engaging in substance misuse and developing a substance use disorder.
Addiction is a complex disease affecting multiple aspects of physical and mental health in ways that other disorders do not. Genetic disposition, severe stress—especially trauma, co-occurring mental health conditions, and the availability of drugs and alcohol are the primary drivers of this disease. Those drivers are different for each individual patient making the treatment of addiction much more complicated than other diseases.
Recovery Ways offers a holistic treatment approach to addiction. This means that we focus on the whole person, not just the substance misuse. In fact, misusing drugs and alcohol is more of a symptom than the main aspect of a substance use disorder. To overcome a SUD, mind, body, and spirit need to be healed.