Can Members in Recovery Help Others?

Author: IAFF Staff

December 5, 2019

If you consider yourself in recovery from a mental health or substance use disorder, you may be interested in using your recovery experience to serve others who are struggling.

As a fire fighter or emergency medical personnel in recovery, you have a valuable perspective that may benefit others. Not only do you understand the stressors of the job, but what it takes to ask for help in an occupation that has traditionally not recognized the importance of behavioral health.  

As an IAFF member in recovery, you bring the knowledge, empathy and credibility to serve others who are struggling with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief or substance abuse. 

Fire fighters talking in front of a fire truck about recovery

What are some ways a fire fighter or paramedic in recovery can support others who are struggling with behavioral health challenges?

  • Simply share your experience — it may help to counter stigma.
  • Reach out to a distressed member to show you care.
  • Connect a distressed member to your peer support team if he or she is willing to talk.
  • Attend an IAFF Peer Support training to learn introductory helping skills.
  • Join your department’s peer support team or member assistance program.
  • Serve as a sponsor in a 12-step program.
  • Consider starting a support group.

How can serving others benefit an individual in recovery?

Serving others can provide a sense of value, purpose and connection to others, which are all important components of continued recovery and well-being.

Your experience may help motivate others from ambivalence to change, creating a positive out of the suffering you experienced. Lastly, helping others can provide perspective on how far you’ve come, while providing you the accountability needed to stay on track.

When is it not a good time for members in recovery to help others coping with behavioral health problems?

  • If you recently completed treatment, it can be a vulnerable time. As you transition back to your normal schedule at work and home, allow yourself at least six months to stay focused on self-care and aftercare participation as your number-one priority. If you’re in recovery from substance use, additional time may be needed.
  • If you completed residential treatment but did not follow through with recommended outpatient aftercare, this may increase your risk for setbacks down the road. Consider checking in with your local mental health care provider to see how you are doing.
  • If your symptoms are not currently well managed or you are experiencing an increase in symptoms since previously completing treatment, follow up with your mental health care provider.
  • If you are currently facing severe personal stress or loss (e.g., the recent death of a loved one, divorce or house foreclosure), it’s important to stay focused on your own well-being first.
  • If you are having serious performance problems or difficulty functioning at work, it may not be a good time to focus on helping others.  
  • If you struggle with personal boundaries and can’t say no to people, proceed with caution as you considering helping others formally or informally. 

Fire fighters who have dealt with their own behavioral health challenges may be naturally drawn to serve others — and this is a good thing! However, it’s critically important to fully assess your own stage of recovery before shifting your focus to help others. You should be in a stable place in your recovery. Check in with your local mental health care provider first to determine if now is the right time.  

To learn more about how peer support team members are recruited, see the IAFF Guide How to Recruit Members for Your Peer Support Team.

If you are in the early stages of recovery or looking for resources to heal from a mental health condition or substance use disorder, The IAFF Center of Excellence can help. The IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery is a  comprehensive treatment center designed exclusively for IAFF members struggling with addiction, PTSD and other co-occurring mental health problems. Call today for a no-obligation, free and confidential screening for you or a loved one.

Lauren Kosc, M.A., LCPC is a behavioral health specialist, clinician and blog editor for the International Association of Fire Fighters. If you are an IAFF member in recovery and want to share your story, contact [email protected].

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