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Sleep quality and mental health disorder symptoms in Canadian PSP

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Why was the study done?

Public safety personnel (PSP) work in high-stress environments. They also commonly work long hours and regularly report getting less than six hours of sleep. PSP also demonstrate higher rates of mental health disorders compared to the general population. Researchers have shown a relationship between poor sleep and mental health disorders in the general population. The purpose of the current study is to:

  • Provide an estimate of sleep experiences in different Canadian PSP (i.e., corrections workers, firefighters, paramedics, RCMP, municipal police, communications operators);
  • Explore the relationship between sleep quality and mental health disorder symptoms.

What was done in the study?

PSP, recruited through their employers, professional organizations, or public announcements, participated in an online survey that assessed mental health disorder symptoms and sleep patterns. Participants were asked to complete questionnaires about symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder (PD), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). They were also asked to complete the Insomnia Severity Index (ISI) and answer a question about how much stress shift work had caused them in the past six months. Over 5800 PSP completed the questionnaires.

What did we find out?

  • A majority of PSP (56%) reported symptoms consistent with clinical insomnia.
  • PSP reported significantly fewer hours of sleep per work night than the general population, with paramedics having the shortest sleep duration on a work day.
  • 49% of PSP reported symptoms consistent with at least one mental health disorder, with PTSD being the most common at 21%. Corrections workers were the group most likely to report mental health disorder symptoms.
  • RCMP, corrections, paramedics, and communications workers reported significantly more sleep disturbances than firefighters and municipal or rural police.
  • PSP who screened positive for insomnia were 3-6 times more likely to report symptoms of a mental health disorder.
  • Those participants who rated the stress of shift work as high were more likely to report insomnia symptoms.

Where do we go from here?

This study shows that sleep management is an important aspect of the PSP working environment. This study can’t assess if a lack of sleep directly causes mental health disorder symptoms. The relationship may be bi-directional, with sleep affecting mental health disorder symptoms and mental health disorder symptoms affecting sleep. However, the rates of sleep disturbance and the level of mental health disorder symptoms indicate that it would be worthwhile for proper education and sleep hygiene training to be incorporated into basic PSP training courses. Organizations may also want to consider adopting policies that restrict the frequency of lengthy shifts (over 10 hrs), night shifts, and rotating shift patterns. Continued study of sleep and mental health disorder symptoms will be required to understand the relationship fully.

The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current lay summary.

Original Study: Angehrn, A., Sapach, M.J.N., Ricciardelli, R., MacPhee, R. S., Anderson, G.S., & Carleton, R. N. (2020). Sleep quality and mental health disorder symptoms among Canadian public safety personnel. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(8), 2708.

Lay summary prepared by Kossick, E.

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