12-Step Support Groups for First Responders

With high rates of substance abuse, PTSD, and suicide among first responders, those who survive and make it into treatment and recovery are lucky — lucky people with a great deal of work and persistence behind them as well as in front of them.

Learning how to live a balanced life while managing symptoms related to trauma, including the urge to drink or get high, is a process. One of the best ways to recommit to that choice every day is to surround yourself with others who have been through the same thing and trying to make it work minute by minute just as you are.

The 12-Step program is open to everyone, and many first responders in recovery take advantage of the wide range of meetings available, choosing one over another based on location, time, format, or the people they meet. There are, however, a number of 12-Step meetings that are dedicated to supporting law enforcement specifically, EMS personnel, or firefighters — or that are for first responders in general. These meetings can provide a safe and supportive forum unique to first responders that allows them to share their past experiences as well as their current struggles on the job and off with people who understand.

Benefits of 12-Steps

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are the two most prominent branches of the 12-Step program, though there are meetings in some areas that cater just to those who struggle with cocaine addiction, marijuana addiction, gambling addiction, and other addictions. Though it has the word alcoholic in the title, AA meetings are for alcoholics and addicts alike. Those who attend NA are for the most part addicted to drugs other than alcohol, though in most cases, those whose substance of choice is alcohol are usually welcome.

First responder-specific 12-Step meetings and the 12-Step program in general provide a number of benefits to participants, including:

  • The support of a community of peers who are also living a sober life
  • The support of a sponsor, if you choose to follow that route
  • The structure and accountability provided by attending meetings regularly
  • The structure applied to the exploration of trauma and addiction by engaging in the 12-Step format

A First Responder Support System

The life of a first responder is a unique experience, and there are some undoubtedly traumatic aspects to the job. With the ever-changing schedule, it can be difficult to connect with regular treatment options, which can lead to a feeling of isolation that only compounds underlying stress, depression, grief, and memories. It is understandable that many would seek to self-medicate by using drugs or alcohol, but there are ways to choose healthier coping mechanisms.

Attending 12-Step meetings that are often available around the clock can help to address the scheduling issue, providing first responders on the job with the support they need to begin or continue the process of recovery. Even when inpatient treatment is not an option and intensive outpatient programs are too time intensive to allow for continued work, 12-Step meetings provide a much-needed break from the job. They also offer the support and assistance necessary to move closer to getting the mental health treatment necessary to address PTSD, suicidal thoughts, and/or substance abuse issues, or to continue engaging in recovery.


This article was originally published by James E. Morrison, retired Chicago Police Officer and Employee Assistance Program Treatment Consultant for Law Enforcement at American Addiction Centers, on LinkedIn.

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