Managing Mental Health in High Overdose Stations

Author: IAFF Staff

August 1, 2018

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2015 alone. Nearly half of these deaths can be traced to a surge in the use of one specific class of substances: opioids. Available as prescription pills and illicit street varieties, opioids are quickly becoming a public health emergency as more people in the United States become addicted to them.

Fire fighters and paramedics are on the frontlines of this epidemic. In stations across the country, IAFF members are tasked with the difficult job of bringing people back from the brink of overdose. In many communities, fire departments respond to more overdose emergencies than fires.

Fire fighters in uniform walking through a forest area

If your fire department has had a steadily increasing stream of overdose calls, you know how high the mental and physical toll can be. You may be doing all you can to help these people, but the calls continue to come in. Dealing with overdoses on a regular, unrelenting basis can cause you to question if your efforts make difference. Over time, you may notice yourself becoming resentful of the people you’re helping. You may even start to feel angry, burnt out or even numb. Some fire fighters and paramedics will drink to blot out these feelings.

It is possible to make a different choice. You can cope with overdose calls, help people in need and preserve your own mental well-being by following these steps to self-care:

Talk to Supportive Family and Friends

The solace of others is an invaluable source of support in difficult times. If you’re struggling to make sense of your work or grappling with uncomfortable feelings, someone you trust can be a useful sounding board for your experiences. Talking to your loved ones can make it easier for them to understand what you’re going through, too.

Take Time for Self-Care

While the concept of self-care might sound indulgent to men and women who spend their lives helping others, it’s an essential component of mental health. The old adage is true: fill your own cup first. You can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself. Make sure you get enough sleep, drink an adequate amount of water, and eat healthy foods whenever possible. Set aside a few hours a week just for you. Go fishing, take a walk, read a book or work on your car. By taking time for activities that fulfill and recharge you, you can better serve the public you’ve vowed to protect.

Process Difficult Emotions

After a challenging overdose call, you might experience a strange, conflicting mix of emotions. You may feel angry, upset, sad or numb. If you don’t work through your emotions, they can bubble up in ways you don’t expect. You might lash out at others, sabotage yourself with drinking or drug use, or struggle with poor mental health. Don’t ignore what’s going on inside of you — explore it. Talk to people or professionals you trust. Take time to sit with your feelings. Write about them in a journal. Find your own way to validate your experience, and then let it go.

Manage Your Expectations

Working a high volume of overdose calls can be overwhelming. You may bring the same people back from the brink of death multiple times in a month or week. Watching people make the same mistakes again and again might make you feel like the work you do is futile and pointless. This hopelessness can quickly deplete your reserves of compassion and empathy, leaving you feeling numb. It may be time to examine your own expectations.

Your irritation is likely connected to the belief that if you give someone a second chance at life, they’ll use it to change for the better. But when your actions are attached to an expected result, anything other than that result is disappointing. You can revive people who overdose on opioids, but you can’t fix their addictions or force them to change. Try to find meaning in the process of helping them, if only for a moment.

Taking overdose calls can be difficult, but with the right practices, you can still do the work that fulfills you while taking care of your mental health. But sometimes, even the strongest can crack under the demands of the job. If you suspect that you or someone you know is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression or addiction, the IAFF Center of Excellence is here to help. Call a representative today to learn more about our IAFF member-exclusive, evidence-based care, and take the first step toward hope and healing.

We can help. Call 240-545-5141 or

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