Post-traumatic stress disorder: What can research learn from firefighters?

Firefighters are exposed to a range of potentially traumatic stressors in their jobs, and many cope perfectly fine. However, a not-insignificant percentage of them develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and Texas A&M researchers are trying to figure out why—and what they can do to help.

Suzy Gulliver, a licensed clinical psychologist at Baylor Scott & White Health and a professor at the College of Medicine, has been both researching and providing clinical care for firefighters for nearly two decades.

Gulliver’s research has been funded by grants through the National Institute of Mental Health, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Hogg Foundation.

“Although some studies suggest that firefighters are at increased risk for mental health problems, others suggest unusual resilience,” Gulliver said. “We want to find out more about the reactions of these workers with immediate occupational exposure to trauma.”

Gulliver sees the full range of reactions, with firefighters coping with the same trauma in different ways, some better than others. “Some of them are staying quite healthy, some are experiencing symptoms and coming out of it and some displaying a full case of PTSD and not coming out of it,” she said. “Luckily, that last group is the smallest.” She estimates that about 22 percent of firefighters will experience PTSD at some point in their careers.

For many firefighters, though, their working life has included other potentially traumatic experiences. “Many firefighters are American military veterans,” Gulliver said. “Understanding that someone who is on their second or third high risk occupation is something we should think about as a society.”

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