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Research Summaries

Extinguishing stigma: Stress, social support, and help-seeking in firefighters

Keywords: Help-seeking, Stigma, Stress

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Why was the study done?

In recent years there has been an increase in mental health disorders and suicides among firefighters. These increases have created a desire to provide support and services for firefighters’ mental health. However, there is still a gap between firefighters who need help and those who seek help. Research shows that stigma still exists against people who suffer mental health issues. This stigma can affect help-seeking behaviour.

The current study examined many aspects of firefighters’ mental health, including occupational stress, peer support, and help-seeking attitudes.

What was done in the study?

An online survey was offered to firefighters in a large B.C. fire department. The survey included measures of occupational stress, social support, professional help-seeking, mental health service preference, and open-ended questions that allowed for free feedback. In total, 218 firefighters completed the survey.

What did we find out?

  • Several stressors affected participants. The top five, in order, are: sleep disruption, feeling isolated from family because of work, thoughts of past upsetting incidents, observing the negative effects of stress on co-workers, and working with a substandard co-worker on emergency incidents.
  • Participants reported feeling generally supported by their peers.
  • Occupational stress was highest in those that had served 5-10 years.
  • Participants that reported more social support reported less occupational stress.
  • Participants preferred fire department-led peer or critical incident stress management support for the majority of job-related stressors. However, they indicated they would choose a mental health professional if they were drinking excessively or experiencing PTSD symptoms like flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Participants indicated they would prefer to seek help from a mental health professional for issues affecting their personal lives.
  • Participants indicated there are more programs and training available for mental health and well-being. However, some felt that there was still not enough thought and consideration given to psychological injuries.
  • Participants showed a preference for peer support because peer supporters “get” firefighter work.
  • Participants indicated that return-to-work managers and the employer needed to be educated on firefighter mental health to understand the unique stressors they face.
  • Participants reported stigma, both from others and self, as a barrier to help-seeking. Issues of “pride,” “fear of what others will think,” and “being perceived as weak” were reported.
  • Some participants mentioned that confidentially and trust were very important since bullying has happened in the department for those with mental health issues.

Where do we go from here?

This study, which provided a mix of standardized measures and open-ended questions, gathered extensive information from participants. Though the research was conducted with just one fire department, many themes emerged that could be important for all fire departments making plans to improve mental health and well-being. The authors of the paper listed several recommendations, including having counsellors go on ride alongs, increased support for retired firefighters, approaching well-being holistically, education for family, and mandatory mental health check-ins. One key message from participants was that anyone providing help or support should know firefighter culture and the nature of trauma.

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


Original Study

Isaac, G.M. and Buchanan, M.J. (2021). Extinguishing stigma among firefighters: An examination of stress, social support, and help-seeking attitudes. Psychology, 12, 349-373.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Edited and reviewed by Barootes, B. & Buchanan, M.J.

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