Study lacking on suicide effects on first responders: researcher

A University of Otago researcher says further investigation into the effects of suicide events on first responders is urgently needed.

PhD student and psychologist in training Renan Lyra, of the University of Otago, Wellington, said that many police officers, firefighters and paramedics would attend at least one suicide event in their careers.

There had been little research on the effect that this had on their personal and professional lives and on their own suicide risk, Mr Lyra said.

He has reviewed 25 research papers on the effect attending a suicide event has on those on the front line in countries including the US, UK, Australia and in Europe.

His review, which has just been published in the international journal PLOS One, is understood to be the first to specifically look at the effect of work-related exposure to suicide on first responders and mental health professionals.

Almost all the research papers published over the past 10 years had focused on the effect the suicide of a patient had on the psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and nurses who worked with them, rather than on first responders, he said.

Attending a suspected suicide was one of the most traumatic situations a first responder was likely to encounter in the course of their work.

"For first responders, the emotional impact includes the high emotional labour they need to expend to manage their feelings, something which has been found to be associated with increased thoughts of suicide among firefighters."

Exposure to suicide was a ‘‘major risk factor’’ for suicide, meaning mental health professionals and first responders were at higher risk of suicide than the general population, he said.

"One of the explanations for the higher rates of suicides among these professions is their higher levels of occupational-related psychological distress and, for first responders, work-related post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. One of the contributors to this might be their higher exposure to suicide.

‘‘For every suicide, it has been estimated that between six and 20 people, usually family members and friends of those who died, are adversely affected psychologically and emotionally. This group is likely to include those who encounter suicide while on duty," he said.

Research which detailed the effect attending a suicide event had on mental health professionals found they experienced sadness, shock, feelings of blame, hopelessness, guilt, self-doubt, grief and anger.

Only two of the 25 research papers Mr Lyra examined measured mental health outcomes in mental health professionals after a patient’s suicide, burnout and PTSD being reported as significant adverse outcomes.

Mr Lyra is planning further research on the effect of suicide on first responders.

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