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6 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Addiction

Date:Friday December 1, 2023

Addiction. Many first responders see certain affects of addiction on a daily basis: homelessness, DUIs, heart attacks, even suicide. It can be tempting to compartmentalize this and stereotype people with addictions as living or acting in a certain way, but the reality is that addiction is far more common and complex than many people know.

1. Addiction Can Change Your Brain Structure

Possibly the most important fact about addiction that many people don’t know, is that addiction can actually change a person’s brain, making it more difficult for them to make rational choices when it comes to their drug or alcohol use. “Just stop drinking!” is easy to say, but for an addict, it gets to a point where it’s not a personal choice anymore. When someone is addicted, their brain’s wiring has shifted to the point where it decreases the person’s capacity for choice over consuming substances, so choosing not to drink or use isn’t that simple. This is why addiction is recognized as a disease, and why professional help is often needed to overcome and heal from addiction.

2. Co-Occurring Disorders Are Extremely Common

For many first responders, the daily stressors of the job can contribute to mental health disorders for which they will often self-medicate. What starts as a few beers after work to relax or forget can lead to a dependence that makes the original anxiety, depression, or PTSD even worse.

A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that 30% of all first responders develop behavioral health disorders. Behavioral health disorders can include substance use issues, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more.

While addiction and behavioral health issues often go hand-in-hand, the good news is that professional care addresses the individual as a whole, helping them regain freedom and heal even if multiple concerns are present.

3. Alcohol Abuse Can Lead to Health & Social Problems

You’ve probably heard the phrase “functioning alcoholic.” If a person is functioning, why does it matter if they have a drinking problem? Well, because alcohol abuse often leads to myriad health and social problems, affecting both personal and professional lives.

“Over time, excessive alcohol use, both in the form of heavy drinking or binge drinking, can lead to numerous health problems, chronic diseases, neurological impairments and social problems.”

– National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence

It’s almost impossible to completely hide an addiction, and sooner or later, it will affect aspects of a person’s life that truly matter to them like their family, friends, and job. In fact, one of the most common symptoms of alcoholism is an increase in problems at home due to drinking habits. Addiction can worsen or lead to other mental health issues like depression or anxiety, and on top of that, it can have a major physical impact over time.

Alcoholism and Drug Addictions Can Lead To:

  • Dementia
  • Stroke
  • Cardiovascular problems (including hypertension)
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Liver diseases (such as cirrhosis, or scarring of the tissue)
  • Gastrointestinal issues

Addiction affects every aspect of life, from relationships to career. Recognizing the issues associated with continued alcohol abuse is extremely important, since it makes it clear that overcoming this mental disorder should be a priority.

4. Most Addicts Work For a Living

According to SAMHSA, three-quarters of all people with a drinking or drug problem are employed. That means that most people struggling with addiction aren’t homeless, they’re people we see every day who appear to be functioning but are weighed down by an incredibly difficult internal struggle.

Addiction respects no boundaries and happens regardless of background or income level. It can happen to anyone, especially those answering the call to help in extremely challenging ways like first responders do on a daily basis. By adjusting how we think about addiction, we’re more likely to focus on solutions rather than stereotypes.

5. Early Intervention is More Effective Than Waiting for “Rock Bottom”

A common myth is that a person should wait to hit “rock bottom,” their life falling apart and facing dire consequences, before getting help. Of course, if a person IS in this situation, professional help is a must. But there’s no need to wait to get to that point–if a person is uncomfortable with their relationship to a substance, taking action and getting help can turn things around with far less collateral damage. Behavior change and recovery is a process, and something that can change lives at any stage.

6. You Can Recover from Addiction – You Just Need Help

Complete recovery from addiction is possible. According to a recent survey from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, at least a third of those struggling with alcoholism fully recover from the effects of the addiction. Getting the right kind of help is critical for addiction recovery. The ‘right kind of help’ can mean either professional help in the form of a treatment center or more informal help in the form of support from friends and family. Either way, it is important to understand that you do not have to go through recovery on your own. The key in recovery is to first determine to make a change, then to seek out the help that you need to get started, and finally to stay accountable in recovery.


Some Resources for Substance Abuse Prevention and Addiction Recovery:

  • You don’t have to wait until you meet these signs of addiction to seek help and resources for quitting a substance, but knowing what is considered a red flag can help you understand where you are and how to proceed.
  • This resource focuses on the heightened stresses of COVID-19, but even in regular first responder situations, these resources from the CDC are incredibly valuable when you notice a pattern of turning to substances when you need stress management help.
  • Want to try some training in resilience to boost your coping mechanisms? Organizations like Pause First offer online trainings and share free resources to help you calm your mind and recover from stress in a healthy way.
  • Survive First provides resources for first responders and their families seeking information to help navigate mental health challenges including addiction.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)’s 12-Step approach follows a set of guidelines designed as “steps” toward recovery, and is widely accepted as an effective tool for maintaining sobriety. Their website offers resources and advice for those looking for tried-and-true help.
  • Lighthouse Health & Wellness apps offer therapist referrals to experienced professionals who understand the unique needs of first responders.

To learn more about addiction, recovery, and other health challenges first responders face, log into your Lighthouse app.


If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact COPLINE, a 24-hour CONFIDENTIAL Support Line at 800-267-5463

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