Protective services workers more likely to develop psychiatric disorder after traumatic events

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Police, firefighters and other protective services workers who are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events and are new to their profession are at greater risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, according to a new study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The researchers also found that protective services workers do not appear to have a higher prevalence of mental health problems than workers in other occupations. The study results are featured in the February 2013 issue of Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

"Our findings suggest that exposure to diverse types of traumatic events among protective services workers is a risk factor for new onset of psychopathology and alcohol use disorders," said Christopher N. Kaufmann, MHS, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the Bloomberg School's Department of Mental Health. "When we examined the relationship of exposure to common traumas with the development of mood, anxiety and alcohol use disorders among protective services workers, we found that these workers were at greater risk for developing a mood or alcohol use disorder. Interestingly, this relationship was not seen in those who had been in these jobs for a longer period, but was strong and statistically significant in workers who recently joined the profession. Developing curricula in coping skills and providing timely interventions for early career protective services workers may help reduce future psychiatric morbidity in these workers."

Using data from the U.S National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions researchers compared the prevalence of mental disorders of protective services workers to that of adults in other occupations. In addition, they examined the association of exposure to common traumatic experiences with the development of new mood, anxiety and alcohol use disorders among protective services workers who recently joined the workforce and those who had been in these jobs for a longer period. Lifetime and recent trauma events most commonly reported by protective services workers included: seeing someone badly injured or killed; unexpectedly seeing a dead body; having someone close die unexpectedly and having someone close experience a serious or life-threatening illness, accident or injury.

"The association between the number of different traumatic event types and incident mood and alcohol-use disorders, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, was virtually confined to the group of early career protective services workers," said Ramin Mojtabai, MD, PhD, MPH, senior author of the study and an associate professor with the Bloomberg School's Department of Mental Health. "Future research should examine the coping skills of protective services workers who have been in these jobs for many years, which might make them less likely to develop psychiatric complications in the face of various potentially traumatic experiences."

The authors note, "Special support programs and services for these early career workers can potentially help to prevent development of chronic psychopathology and attrition from these critical jobs."

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