When it comes to first responders and substance abuse, a few things are generally accepted.
Primarily, first responders — a category that includes EMS workers, firefighters, police officers, military, ER doctors and more — are at higher risk for emergent mental health conditions and substance use disorders due to consistently heightened stress levels in their lines of work. However, because these fields are also home to some of the strongest unions, they can access support that goes above and beyond what their non-union peers can get for these concerns.
In this piece, we’ll explore the benefits of union membership for first responders through the lens of support for drug and alcohol abuse.
Why Do First Responders Need Strong Resources for Substance Abuse?
Because of the high-stress nature of their occupations, first responders are at higher risk for a wide variety of mental and behavioral conditions. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions are extremely common among these populations. Substance abuse is linked with many of these conditions.
Abusing drugs and alcohol is also seen as a potentially common way to cope with on-the-job stress, so there are multiple avenues through which first responders can develop an issue with addiction related to their occupations.
The Importance of Seeking (and Having Access to) Treatment for First Responder Substance Abuse
While the Affordable Care Act expanded resources for everyone to access mental and behavioral health services, first responders have advanced needs that civilian populations may not. They’re more likely to be involved in traumatic situations than the average worker, observing things like domestic violence, drug overdoses, catastrophic injuries and violent crimes.
This means that a lack of consistent access to high-quality treatment may have more of a negative impact on first responder populations than others. When first responders have access to quality treatment and evidence-based therapies, the chances of addiction affecting their job performance are lower, keeping everyone in the community safer as a result.
Union Health Plans Usually Have Favorable Coverage for Addiction Treatment
Because union membership improves the bargaining power of workers in a specific field, union health plans generally include better resources specific to the needs of these workers. Similar to how a construction workers’ union might have better coverage for long-term stress injuries common in this industry, first responders’ unions have stronger resources for substance abuse treatment and therapy.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, unions pay over 77% more for health coverage than the average employer. Whereas non-union workers may avoid seeking treatment due to a perception that they can’t afford it, union members will be more likely to have access to cost-effective resources that they can use to recover fully and be in the best health to handle the daily demands of their high-stress occupation.
Sources of Union Support for Drug Use
Beyond simply connecting members with a high standard of care and more coverage than a standard health plan, unions can provide other resources for their members in their times of need as well.
Union Reps Can Be Valuable Sources of Support and Guidance
Unions typically have many benefits that may not be known by every member. It’s the responsibility of a union representative to make sure that when union members are in need, they have access to all the resources the union can offer.
Because unions exist to act in the best interests of their members, substance use disorders are something they don’t take lightly. Your representative has likely helped other members find help for addiction in the past, and they’ll be able to help connect you with proven resources (and potentially, other members in similar situations who can also be used for support).
Labor Unions Can Advocate for Their Members
Unions in all labor industries have traditionally served an important purpose for members: giving them job security. While it’s illegal to terminate a person’s employment due to a qualifying health condition, many states are “at-will,” meaning employers don’t actually have to give a reason for firing, and they may attempt to get around the laws.
Unions use collective power to advocate and protect union members from unfair or unlawful treatment. This means you can seek the care you need for a serious condition without having to worry about keeping your job.
Unions Have Preferred Treatment Providers and Resources
Most unions offer resources to anyone who reaches out for help, especially when it’s an issue like addiction or a mental health concern. These can be dangerous conditions to balance with a career that puts lives at risk.
If you’re a member of a first responders’ union and you feel you might need help, it’s never too early to see what kind of support your union rep can connect you with. Several first responders’ groups work with treatment centers to develop customized treatment tracks that deal with many of the unique hazards of this line of work. Some even operate their own treatment facilities like the IAFF Center of Excellence — a facility specifically for members of the firefighters’ union — where first responders can receive specialized care in a group of their peers.
Prevention Is Key for First Responders
If you’re a first responder, it’s important to stay vigilant about the strain your job puts on you every day. It’s not just about the physical dangers of some of these roles — you have to be looking out for your mental health as well. With first responders, drug use often starts as a method of coping with unaddressed mental health issues. Using your union’s available resources to talk to someone and keep these issues from getting out of control may be key to reducing the need for more serious union drug use support.
Treatment for First Responders Substance Abuse at FHE Health
At FHE Health, we recognize that no two cases are the same. Each client who reaches out for help deserves treatment tailored to their unique needs, and first responders are no exception. We work with unions to ensure their requirements are met while offering specialized treatment tracks for people with at-risk backgrounds and occupations.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, contact us today and take your first steps towards lasting recovery.