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Witnessing Traumatic Events May Take Toll on Novice Responders’ Mental Health

March 22, 2013
Early career first responders may face a greater risk of developing metal disorders if they are exposed to repeated traumatic events.

While new research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that first responders, including firefighters and police offers, do not generally have a higher prevalence of mental health problems when compared to other workers, those who are new to the line of duty and who are exposed to repeated traumatic events – such as witnessing someone injured or killed – face an increased risk of developing psychiatric and alcohol use disorders.

“When we examined the relationship of exposure to common traumas with the development of mood, anxiety and alcohol use disorders among protective services workers, we found that these workers were at greater risk for developing a mood or alcohol use disorder,” said Christopher N. Kaufmann, MHS, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health.

“Interestingly, this relationship was not seen in those who had been in these jobs for a longer period, but was strong and statistically significant in workers who recently joined the profession,” Kaufman added. “Developing curricula in coping skills and providing timely interventions for early career protective services workers may help reduce future psychiatric morbidity in these workers.”

Using data from the U.S National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, researchers compared the prevalence of mental disorders of protective services workers to that of adults in other occupations. They also examined the association of exposure to common traumatic experiences with the development of new mood, anxiety and alcohol use disorders among protective services workers who recently joined the work force and those who had been in these jobs for a longer period.

Traumatic events most commonly reported by protective services workers included seeing someone badly injured or killed; unexpectedly seeing a dead body; having someone close die unexpectedly; and having someone close experience a serious or life-threatening illness, accident or injury.

“The association between the number of different traumatic event types and incident mood and alcohol-use disorders, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, was virtually confined to the group of early career protective services workers,” said Ramin Mojtabai, M.D., Ph.D., MPH, senior author of the study and an associate professor with the Bloomberg School’s Department of Mental Health.

Mojtabai added that further research should focus on how experience first responders develop or maintain coping skills, which might make them less likely to develop psychiatric complications even in the face of traumatic experiences.

“Special support programs and services for these early career workers can potentially help to prevent development of chronic psychopathology and attrition from these critical jobs,” the authors added.

The study results appear in the February 2013 issue of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. The research was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Johns Hopkins Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center.

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