Wellbeing of firefighters: the impact of individual factors, potentially traumatic event exposure, and operational and organisational factors on mental health outcomes
AuthorBancroft, Heather Anne
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusThis item is embargoed and will be available on 2021-10-24.
© 2019 Heather Anne Bancroft
Aims: This study aimed to investigate the prevalence of the common mental health disorders associated with increased exposure to potentially traumatic events in career and volunteer firefighters, and to identify which individual, acute stressor, operational and organisational factors predict mental health outcomes. Method: Four Australian services participated in a prospective study, with 335 firefighters completing an online survey twice (12-months apart). The survey comprised demographic and fire service information, self-report measures for PTSD, depression, anxiety, alcohol use, exposure to personal trauma and life stressors, number and types of firefighter-related potentially traumatic events experienced in the previous 12-months, job satisfaction related to operational and organisational characteristics of their role, and a measure of the priority their fire service placed on their psychological wellbeing. Structured clinical interviews were conducted with a sample of survey respondents to assess for PTSD, depression, generalised anxiety disorder and alcohol use disorder. Results: From 297 clinical interviews (91 career firefighters and 206 volunteer firefighters), 24% (n = 22) of the career firefighters met diagnosis for any psychiatric disorder. Of these, 3% met criteria for PTSD, 5% for depression, 4% for generalised anxiety disorder, and almost 12% for alcohol use disorder. The primary regression analyses indicated the following findings for the career firefighters. The main variable associated with each of the four disorders was the respective level of symptoms at baseline. In addition, exposure to more potentially traumatic events in the previous 12 months contributed to, and high job satisfaction associated with the operational aspects of their role protected them against the development of PTSD and depression. Finally, the findings indicated that experiencing more recent life events in the previous 12 months and rank (being a firefighter) contributed to more symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder. From the interviews 17% (n = 35) of the volunteer firefighters met diagnosis for any psychiatric disorder. Of these, 2% met criteria for PTSD, 4% for depression, 5% for generalised anxiety disorder, and 6% for alcohol use disorder. The primary regression analyses indicated that the only predictor of PTSD, generalised anxiety disorder and alcohol use disorder was the respective baseline level for each disorder. The main predictors of depression were baseline level of symptoms of depression and experiencing more recent life events in the previous 12 months. Conclusions: The relatively low prevalence rates for the career and volunteer firefighters in this study indicate their reasonably good mental health across the four disorders. The rates compare favourably with other firefighter studies and are comparable with the rates in the general population for most disorders. An exception to this was volunteer firefighters’ high rate of alcohol dependence and low rate of PTSD. The findings indicate the importance of fire services developing cultures that support and encourage the early identification and management of symptoms and have systems in place to monitor the types of and frequency of firefighters’ exposure to potentially traumatic events. Finally, particularly for the career firefighters, the findings highlight the protective nature of high job satisfaction associated with operational characteristics of their role and reduced mental health symptoms, and the importance for firefighters and managers to recognise and address reductions in job satisfaction.
Keywordscareer and volunteer firefighter mental health; career and volunteer firefighter PTSD; career and volunteer firefighter depression; career and volunteer firefighter anxiety; career and volunteer firefighter alcohol use; contributing factors to career and volunteer firefighter mental health
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