“I've got no PPE to protect my mind” : understanding the needs and experiences of first responders exposed to trauma in the workplace

Cogan, Nicola and Craig, Ashleigh and Milligan, Lucy and McCluskey, Robyn and Burns, Tara and Ptak, Wiktoria and Kirk, Alison and Graf, Christoph and De Kock, Hannes (2024) “I've got no PPE to protect my mind” : understanding the needs and experiences of first responders exposed to trauma in the workplace. Other. PsyArXiv. (https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/p2r9z)

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Background: First responders (FRs) are at high risk of being exposed to traumatic events in their occupational roles. Responding to critical incidents often involves exposure to life-threatening circumstances, dealing with fatalities as well as encountering highly stressful situations that may trigger traumatic responses. These experiences can lead to poor physical and mental health outcomes including post-traumatic stress disorder, co-morbid conditions such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, insomnia, and suicidality. Little research has explored the perspectives and experiences of FRs in dealing with occupational trauma(s) and how best to meet their health needs. Objective: This study aimed to explore FRs’ experiences of exposure to occupational trauma and its impact on their mental wellbeing. The wider objective was to investigate how FRs can be supported to access appropriate and relevant help, addressing barriers like stigma. Method: A qualitative research design using in-depth semi-structured interviews with FRs (n = 54) was adopted. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed and analysed using an inductive thematic approach. Results: Themes developed were: (1) The pervasive, cumulative and salient impact of occupational trauma on mental health (micro-traumas, nightmares, flashbacks and reliving experiences), (2) The demands of the job exacerbating the adverse effects of trauma (self and others), (3) Insufficient support and unhelpful ways of coping following exposure to trauma (lack of psychological safety), (4) Stigma and fear of judgement as barriers to mental health help-seeking, and (5) Need for specific, accessible and credible trauma-focused interventions and workplace support. Conclusions: The implications of these findings are discussed at the individual, service provider and organisational level, emphasising the importance of implementing a strengths-based, non-pathologising and de-stigmatising approach to trauma in the workplace as experienced by FRs. Emphasis is placed on the importance of overcoming barriers to accessing mental health support and improving access to evidence-based, trauma-focused psychological interventions and workplace support.