The Opioid Epidemic: The Impact to First Responders

Aaron Matthew Laxton, LCSW
8 min readSep 23, 2019
Aaron Laxton, Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark S. King)

(Warning: Below is a description of the opioid crisis that some people might find triggering and traumatizing.)

I waited for the police and the fire department to come to my location. There was a report of a dead body, another casualty of the opioid pandemic. It was a person that I had worked with, and I had come to know. He had now laid deceased in a vacant building for the better part of a day. In the harm reduction movement, this was an unfortunate part of my role; I was a first responder. Not in the typical sense of the term. At best, I was able to educate people on how to stay alive, at the very worst, I coordinated with the medical examiner to notify the next of kin, and I identified folks that I worked with, who were now deceased.

Three years ago, I sat with two friends in a conference room on the Southside of St. Louis, brainstorming a plan to expand harm reduction in Missouri. Harm reduction is a philosophy that promotes an individual’s ability to choose to use substances, and that all tools should be given to individuals to stay as healthy as possible. It is about meeting people where they are, regarding their relationship with chemicals and other illicit substances such as fentanyl. In 2018, I transitioned into harm reduction full-time in St. Louis providing Street Outreach and services at a drop-in center within a zip code that had the highest death rates in Missouri.

Recently, I stepped back from the harm reduction movement, and although I felt guilty, it was what I needed to do. I needed to reenergize my soul and my passion for the work that I do. Without knowing it, I was slowly overdosing on the pain and trauma that I was witnessing every day. It was slowly eating me from the inside out. Just as we have a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, some tools can help providers and first-responders with processing trauma and pain experienced daily by those with whom we work. The term for this is self-care. Self-care is often only offered as lip service, the last slide on a presentation that is obligated, but not many people are intentional about addressing. As a person who was struggling with compassion fatigue, mostly, I had lost compassion for myself; however, my friends and family could see…

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Aaron Matthew Laxton, LCSW

I am a psychotherapist who writes about mental health, addiction, recovery and the impact of substance use from personal experience. Views are my own.