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Wildland Firefighter Psychological and Behavioral Health: Preliminary Data from a National Sample of Current and Former Wildland Firefighters in the United States [Conference session]

Authors:

Abstract

In recent years, topics such as depression, suicide, PTSD, and substance use have garnered increasing attention and discussion within the wildland fire community. Yet, little research has examined psychological and behavioral health variables among wildland firefighters. Accurate information about these characteristics is necessary to help frame discussions targeted at wildland firefighter wellness and to lay the groundwork for understanding associations between wildland fire service and mental/behavioral health. To this end, the present study employed a cross-sectional design to describe probable presence of mental health conditions (PTSD, depression, generalized anxiety disorder), past-year suicidal ideation, risky alcohol use and tobacco use among wildland firefighters in the US. A large, convenience sample of current and former US wildland firefighters (n=2,625) was recruited through social media and electronic platforms hosted by firefighter aid organizations and interagency wildland fire groups. Respondents completed a comprehensive anonymous, self-report survey that contained standard health screeners and other relevant measures. The first 600 participants in the study were incentivized by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Wildland firefighters in the sample reported relatively high rates of probable depression (17.3%), probable generalized anxiety disorder (12.8%), probable PTSD (13.7%), past year suicidal ideation (20.1%), past-month binge drinking (57%), heavy alcohol use (22%) and smokeless tobacco use (36.9%). These rates were 2-10 times higher than rates typically seen among the general public. Further, data showed a disparity between the prevalence of depression and PTSD identified by the study screening measures and the rates at which participants reported having been diagnosed by a healthcare provider. Finally, wildland firefighters in the study reported exposures to a variety of stressful events. Results of the study provide preliminary research data suggesting that wildland firefighters may be at greater risk of developing mental health conditions than the general public, and that a significant proportion of those conditions are under-detected and under-treated. Findings highlight the need for health surveillance and evidence-based health promotion and illness/injury prevention program development for wildland firefighters, particularly in psychological and behavioral health domains.
Title: Wildland Firefighter Psychological and Behavioral Health: Preliminary Data from a National
Sample of Current and Former Wildland Firefighters in the United States
Presenters:
Patricia O’Brien, Ph.D., Staff Psychologist, Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Portland Health Care
System, Portland, OR, patriciaobrienmt@gmail.com
Duncan Campbell, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Montana,
duncan.campbell@umontana.edu
Abstract: In recent years, topics such as depression, suicide, PTSD, and substance use have garnered increasing
attention and discussion within the wildland fire community. Yet, little research has examined psychological and
behavioral health variables among wildland firefighters. Accurate information about these characteristics is
necessary to help frame discussions targeted at wildland firefighter wellness and to lay the groundwork for
understanding associations between wildland fire service and mental/behavioral health. To this end, the present
study employed a cross-sectional design to describe probable presence of mental health conditions (PTSD,
depression, generalized anxiety disorder), past-year suicidal ideation, risky alcohol use and tobacco use among
wildland firefighters in the US. A large, convenience sample of current and former US wildland firefighters
(n=2,625) was recruited through social media and electronic platforms hosted by firefighter aid organizations and
interagency wildland fire groups. Respondents completed a comprehensive anonymous, self-report survey that
contained standard health screeners and other relevant measures. The first 600 participants in the study were
incentivized by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Wildland firefighters in the sample reported relatively
high rates of probable depression (17.3%), probable generalized anxiety disorder (12.8%), probable PTSD
(13.7%), past year suicidal ideation (20.1%), past-month binge drinking (57%), heavy alcohol use (22%) and
smokeless tobacco use (36.9%). These rates were 2-10 times higher than rates typically seen among the general
public. Further, data showed a disparity between the prevalence of depression and PTSD identified by the study
screening measures and the rates at which participants reported having been diagnosed by a healthcare
provider. Finally, wildland firefighters in the study reported exposures to a variety of stressful events. Results of
the study provide preliminary research data suggesting that wildland firefighters may be at greater risk of
developing mental health conditions than the general public, and that a significant proportion of those conditions
are under-detected and under-treated. Findings highlight the need for health surveillance and evidence-based
health promotion and illness/injury prevention program development for wildland firefighters, particularly in
psychological and behavioral health domains.
Citation:
O’Brien, P., & Campbell, D. (2021, May 26). Wildland Firefighter Psychological and Behavioral
Health: Preliminary Data from a National Sample of Current and Former Wildland Firefighters in
the United States [Conference session]. International Association of Wildland Fire 6th Annual Human
Dimensions Conference. https://firesafety-humandimensions2021.com/
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