By the U.S. Fire Administration
Across the country, firefighters are responding to fewer fires but are increasingly called upon to provide Emergency Medical Services (EMS), perform search and rescue, and react to hazardous materials incidents and natural disasters.
They come across a wide variety of tragic situations that play out in or around their homes, along highways, and in every other conceivable part of their communities.
RET — the cumulative effect of regularly caring for the broken bodies and wounded minds of victims and their families — is thought to have a negative psychological impact on firefighters’ own mental health.
(Powerful Message. First responders must face the unknown every day. They never get warnings of what they’ll face. Courtesy of BrandHealthCanada and YouTube. Posted on Aug 18, 2015)
Previous studies have looked at firefighter mental health challenges in the context of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), which relies on assessment instruments attuned to one particular traumatic event.
Takeaways from Previous Studies
- Evidence shows that rates of depression among fire and EMS personnel are higher than in the general population.
- Firefighters have higher rates of alcohol use and binge drinking compared to the general population.
- There is a possible connection between risky drinking behaviors and PTSD.
- Firefighters experience “secondary trauma” or “compassion fatigue” from repeated exposure to trauma.
- They may not be diagnosed with PTSD, but clearly suffer from symptoms such as sleep disorders, avoidance behaviors, and feelings of helplessness that are associated with PTSD.
(“SIGNS” is a short film made to bring awareness to the importance of mental health in the first responder community. Originally made for internal usage, it was decided to share to spread awareness. Made in collaboration with Marysville Fire Peer Support Group and Seattle Fire Peer Support Group. Courtesy of Andrew Stebliy and YouTube. Posted on Oct 20, 2017)
Takeaways from This Study
FIREFIGHTING AND MENTAL HEALTH: EXPERIENCES OF REPEATED EXPOSURE TO TRAUMA
- It is more common for firefighters to experience a negative mental health impact from a series of traumatic events rather than from one single event.
- Symptoms of RET for most firefighters include desensitization, irritability, cynicism and intrusive flashbacks.
- Many firefighters appear to effectively manage their emotional response to trauma.
- Future research should explore their protective coping methods and resiliency.
(More than a quarter of people who work in our emergency services have contemplated suicide. Roger Moore served as a firefighter in Coventry, witnessing death and destruction – and by the end, wanted to take his own life. Now he’s urging others not to suffer in silence. Courtesy of 5 News and YouTube. Posted on Aug 17, 2017)
Learn more about this research
Many research studies have focused on firefighter mental health challenges due to a single traumatic event.
But what about repeated exposure to such events?
The article details findings from a research project1 that studied the impact of repeated exposure trauma (RET) on firefighters.
(Firefighters Hidden Dangers. When the danger of PTSD follows them for a lifetime. Courtesy of WPTV News | West Palm Beach Florida and YouTube. Posted on Jun 4, 2012)
The research article is available through the U.S. Fire Administration library by contacting email@example.com.
Interested readers may be able to access the article through their local library or through the publisher’s website.
1 Jahnke, S. A., Poston, W. S., Haddock, C. K., & Murphy, B. (2016). Firefighting and mental health: Experiences of repeated exposure to trauma. Work, 53(4), 737-744. doi:10.3233/wor-162255
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