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Researchers launch confidential helpline, 833-EMS-INTX, for Texas first responders to find help for substance use disorder

Photo of person making a phone call at night to show first responders can now call a confidential helpline to seek treatment for substance use disorder. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
First responders can now call a confidential helpline to seek treatment for substance use disorder. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

First responders in Texas can now call a confidential helpline to seek treatment for substance use and mental health disorders through a new clinical research program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). The Heroes Helpline comes at a time when first responders are serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Studies show substance use is one of the major occupational risk factors for fire and emergency medical service (EMS) workers, and is especially prevalent among women.

“First responders are more prone to high rates of drug and alcohol use, likely because of the incredibly stressful nature of their jobs,” said James Langabeer, PhD, EdD, MBA, a professor of emergency medicine and biomedical informatics with McGovern Medical School and the School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth. “Research shows they also tend to be more reluctant to seek help because of stigma or fear of disciplinary action. We know that the current pandemic has caused extreme levels of stress and anxiety for many first responders as they deal with concerns over their own well-being, and we want to provide a way for them to seek treatment without retribution.”

Through the Heroes Helpline, any active or retired first responder, including law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians, can call the helpline toll-free at 1-833-EMS-INTX (367-4689) if they have any questions or need help with any aspect of substance use or mental health.

“In many areas, calls to 911 for drug-related overdoses or complications resulting from substance abuse disorder are managed by EMS employees. Yet, when the person with struggling with substance abuse is the rescuer themselves, who will help them? EMS workforce are often called ‘heroes’ for their lifesaving work; we want to show them that we are here to help through the Heroes Helpline,” Langabeer said.

Callers are screened, provided brief interventions, and then receive personalized peer coaching and referrals to local treatment facilities and support groups according to their needs. Treatment could entail behavioral counseling, peer coaching, and/or medications.

“We chose to use peer recovery support specialists as a primary method of helping first responders through tele-coaching. They are people who have experienced living with substance use disorder, have specialized training in how to overcome it, and are well-positioned to help others navigate the recovery process. Peer coaches are often able to engage others into treatment and sustained recovery,” Langabeer said.

Callers are also given resources to help improve their mental health. Research shows mental health disorders frequently occur among the EMS workforce, and the rate of suicide among EMS workers is well over two times higher than that of the general population.

“It’s imperative to keep our first responders healthy, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to substance use disorder, data shows they are prone to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions which, left untreated, could lead to substance use disorders,” Langabeer said.

Langabeer’s team will track results in an effort to understand the overall prevalence of substance abuse among first responders in Texas and identify optimal treatment patterns. Data is secure and will not be shared outside his research team.

The program is also offering a free one-hour course for first responders to identify, evaluate, and seek help for substance abuse disorder and mental health disorders in themselves and others.

The Heroes First Responder Program is modeled after promising results with peer coaching in patients with opioid use disorder through another program Langabeer founded called HEROES.

The Heroes Helpline is funded in part by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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