It is fitting that National Alcohol Awareness Month (April) is coming to an end just as the coronavirus pandemic causes a severe national spike in alcoholism.
First responders in the field are seeing this manifest itself in two ways. First, the rise in emergency calls related to addiction (such as domestic violence incidents, overdoses, alcohol related injuries, etc.) and second, the unfortunate prevalence of first responders developing medical and mental health issues due to the intense nature of their work, which can result in trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Studies show the longer a first responder is exposed to stresses of their jobs, the greater the risk of developing an alcohol dependence.
As an addiction treatment provider that remains open during the coronavirus pandemic, we are constantly encouraging patients not to isolate themselves, which is much easier said than done during this period of social distancing.
People who struggle with sobriety are facing unprecedented triggers and relapse risks. In-person self-help meetings are cancelled or have become virtual. Many addiction treatment programs are temporarily closed or not seeing patients in person. Patients who visit clinics for detox and addiction treatment medication may be unable to access it.
The 23 million Americans who struggle with substance use disorder are at risk as their ongoing access to treatment and recovery resources become disrupted. The interrelatedness of alcoholism and addiction with other dangerous public health issues including domestic violence, suicide, and homelessness is well studied. It makes sense that increased alcoholism and addiction rates are leading to more emergency calls to first responders.
First responders are already being taxed in the current health crisis. In areas hit particularly hard with COVID-19 cases, call volumes to EMTs and paramedics are extremely high with cardiac arrests and people facing respiratory distress. Pre-coronavirus, emergency calls would be a mix of serious incidents and minor ones, whereas now the cases are overwhelmingly life and death.
That strain and pressure on first responders creates a higher risk of abusing alcohol and developing PTSD. This can occur even if the first responder was not personally at risk but witnessed the traumatic event.
First responders, whether they are firefighters, police officers, healthcare workers, or EMTs may perceive untreated PTSD, such as flashbacks, feelings of isolation or avoidance, as signs of weakness and be less likely to ask for help.
This can fester into co-occurring diagnoses of trauma and addiction. If you or your colleagues are experiencing any of these symptoms, there are professional and confidential behavioral health resources to support you.
Warning signs can include:
- Isolation and disengagement from relationships
- Trouble sleeping, chronic fatigue, detachment, and emotional numbness
- Being unable to feel pleasure. Giving up activities that used to bring joy
- Binge drinking, which is defined as more than four drinks on a single occasion for women, and five for men.
- Feeling that alcohol is needed to function in daily life or feeling the need to start your day with alcohol
Alcohol is the most misused drug within first responders who have PTSD for a variety of reasons. Drinking socially at events is oftentimes encouraged and drinking together can be a way for people to bond.
It’s legal, easy to obtain, and not overly expensive. It acts as a stress reliever at first since alcohol suppresses the central nervous system.
Before long, especially for individuals with PTSD, coping with trauma using alcohol can turn into full blown alcoholism. Although Alcohol Awareness Month is coming to a close, I encourage all of you to be aware of the risks and seek help if needed.
Written by Sue Bright:
Sue Bright is the Executive Director of New Directions for Women, an addiction treatment center for women of all ages in Southern California. With more than 30 years’ experience in the behavioral healthcare field, she specializes in intake, quality improvement, and working collaboratively with HR professionals, EAPs, and unions.
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