Why was the study done?
Firefighters are at a higher risk for mental health disorders than members of the general public. Many strategies to mitigate mental health issues in firefighters have been developed, Peer support is one of the most commonly used strategies. It is presented either formally or informally in many firefighter organizations. Trained peer supporters often offer low-level psychological interventions, identify at risk co-workers, or facilitate getting professional help. However, there has been very little research into how effective these strategies are.
Many fire services from across Alberta participated in battling the Fort McMurray fire in 2016. Each fire service differed in the mental health preparations before and after the fire, offering a unique opportunity to compare mental health outcomes between the groups.
What was done in the study?
Participants were asked about mental health supports and completed questionnaires on anxiety, depression, and PTSD over the course of the 30 months after the Fort McMurray fire. Data from 745 firefighters was used to learn about mental health supports offered in their organization at four time periods:
- Resiliency/mental health training before the fire;
- mental health support during the fire;
- support in the 48 hours after the fire;
- on-going support in the months after the fire.
Chiefs of 78 of the organizations involved were also interviewed to gather their opinions of the supports offered at these four time periods.
What did we learn?
- When interviewed, 44 chiefs reported their services had peer support, with 31 saying the peer supporters were formally trained.
- When asked about the supports at each of the periods, the chiefs and the firefighters demonstrated a lack of agreement :
|Period||Chiefs said Yes||Frontline said Yes|
|Resiliency training before the fire||57.1%||34.7%|
|Mental health support during the fire||55.8%||19.6%|
|Support in the first 48hrs after the fire||82.1%||24.5%|
|Support in the months after the fire||51.7%||35.9%|
- Reductions in mental health symptoms for anxiety, depression, and PTSD were seen in each period when support was given.
- Symptoms of anxiety and depression were reduced by resiliency training before the fire.
- There was a greater reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression when fire chiefs and firefighters agreed that support was provided.
- Supports provided impacted PTSD the least.
- Those who had access to peer support post-fire had a reduced risk of having a mental health disorder.
- There was no difference in the likeliness of mental health disorders between those given formal peer support vs. those given informal peer support.
Where do we go from here?
There are many limitations to this study, like a lack of detail on the type of peer support given. However, there are a couple of important themes that emerged from this study. Firstly, it is clear that offering support may not be enough. The support needs to be recognized and acknowledged by the frontline for it to be successful. This study’s data provides evidence that peer support may reduce mental health symptoms after a critical incident. More research into the effectiveness of peer support is needed.
The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.
Cherry, N., Galarneau, JM., Haynes, W., & Sluggett, B. (2021). The role of organizational supports in mitigating mental ill health in firefighters: A cohort study in Alberta, Canada. America Journal of Industrial Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.23249
Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Reviewed & edited by Barootes, B. & Cherry, N.