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Research Summaries

Relationship between trauma exposure and physical conditions in PSP

Keywords: Depression, Injury, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Trauma

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Why was the study done?

Public safety personnel (PSP) are regularly exposed to potentially traumatic events (PTE). Research shows that PTE exposure may occur in over 85% of the PSP population. Research on the general population has suggested a relationship between trauma and physical conditions. The purpose of the current study is to:

  • Examine the relationship between the context of the trauma (on the job vs. off the job) and existing physical conditions;
  • Establish the prevalence rate of existing physical conditions by PSP type and trauma type in a large sample of Canadian PSP.

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 symptoms, trauma exposure, PSP category, and presence of physical conditions. Over 5200 participants completed the survey. The participants came from six PSP categories (municipal/provincial police, RCMP, correctional workers, firefighters, paramedics, and communications officials). Physical conditions were grouped into seven categories (neurologic, digestive, endocrine/metabolic, respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and other).

What did we find out?

  • The most frequently reported trauma category (42.3% of PSP) was “witnessed trauma.”
  • The rates of mental health disorder symptoms in participants were: 21% PTSD, 27.1% anxiety (including generalized anxiety and social anxiety etc.), 26.9% mood disorders (including depression and bipolar etc.) 5.7% alcohol misuse.
  • Results generally show PSP had fewer physical conditions if their worst trauma was experienced on the job. Significantly, participants were less likely to experience “other” physical conditions if the trauma was experienced on the job.
  • Paramedics had the highest levels of neurological, digestive, endocrine/metabolic, and respiratory conditions.
  • Corrections workers had the highest level of cardiovascular conditions.
  • RCMP had the highest levels of musculoskeletal conditions.
  • Communications officials had the highest levels of other conditions.
  • Cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and other conditions were most common in PSP that selected life-threatening illnesses/injuries as their worst experienced trauma.

Where do we go from here?

While there are limitations to studies conducted using survey methods, the current study provides insight into the relationship between PSP trauma exposure and physical conditions. Importantly, there are significant differences in the physical conditions experienced by different PSP categories. Such differences should be taken into account when designing interventions for PSP. The overall results suggest that PSP are better able to cope with trauma on-the-job than off-the-job. This result might mean that programs designed to help PSP deal with stress and build resiliency have a positive impact on PSP health, leaving PSP better suited to deal with uncertainty on the job. This result provides support for the continued use and expansion of such programs.


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

Original Study: Sommer, J.L., El-Gabalawy, R., Taillieu, T., Afifi, T.O., & Carleton, R.N. (2020). Associations between trauma exposure and physical conditions among public safety personnel.

The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Reviewed & edited by Barootes, B. and Sommer, J.L.

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