One in four first responders in Arkansas have PTSD, moderate to severe anxiety disorder, or are at high risk for suicide, according to a statewide study currently underway surveying the state's firefighters and paramedics.
Dr. Sara Jones is working on the study at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Jones says that, so far, she has had over 200 people participate in an anonymous survey on the mental health consequences of being a first responder. Twenty-one first responders have participated in in-person interviews to talk in-depth about the toll job stress and witnessing trauma has taken on them.
"I did not know what to expect for the interviews. I thoughts a few people might want to talk, but a lot of people want to talk. I've even gotten a few retirees in the last couple of weeks that have called me and want to talk about it. That's important because they've been through it and they want to see things change," says Jones.
National studies, like one released recently by the University of Phoenix, have reported that more than 80% of first responders have witnessed trauma on the job and about 34% have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder like PTSD or depression.
Jones says data from her online survey currently shows 13% of participants meet criteria for moderate to severe depression, 27% show signs of moderate to severe anxiety disorder, 26% show signs of PTSD, and 26% appear to be at high risk for suicide.
"Imagine in the fire service and in the EMS service where the culture is of strength and you don't necessarily want to show weakness. One driving force of this is how can we change that culture and what would they be more receptive to when it comes to services and interventions," says Jones.
She has been working in collaboration with a dozen fire departments, the Arkansas Professional Firefighters union, and MEMS in Little Rock. She will be reaching out to first responders in rural portions of the state.
Jones says her study will run through the end of the year. She is seeking further funding to continue the research and hopes it can shed light on what interventions are needed.
She adds that money is often a barrier to getting first responders the help they need.