A University of New Brunswick psychology professor has received funding from the federal government to conduct research on post-traumatic stress injuries amongst firefighters.

Janine Olthuis is among 20 other researchers across Canada that have received funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for projects relating to post-traumatic stress among public safety personnel.

PTSI is the new acronym being used in place of PTSD, as “injury” instead of “disorder” is a better word to relate the validity of post-traumatic stress to the public.

“Really, it’s little bit more palatable and it conceptualizes it more as a physical health problem, like a broken arm,” Olthuis said.

Olthuis has selected firefighters in her research because of an interest in public safety personnel and their experience with trauma. The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs also reached out to the UNB Psychology Department with interest.

While Olthuis is pleased to be working in partnership with firefighters, she hopes that her research can “extend to other public safety personnel groups as well.”

The common forms of trauma that Olthuis will examine are symptoms of repetitive, long-term trauma, and working in an environment where you are at risk of losing your life or being grievously injured.

Olthuis has selected firefighters in her research because of an interest in public safety personnel and their experience with trauma | Photo by Maria Nazareth Araújo

The stress of firefighting does not only result from the dangerous work environment. Firefighters are also used as first responders for events like car accidents and other emergencies, which increases their likelihood of being exposed to trauma.

The usual symptoms of PTSI, particularly common after prolonged and repeated exposure, include “things like re-experiencing the trauma, severe nightmares, distressing flashbacks, avoidance of anything that reminds someone of the trauma, significant impact on mood, and a tendency to feel guilt or shame for any role they played in the traumatic event,” Olthuis said.

These symptoms can be addressed through a process known to psychologists as “narrative exposure therapy,” in which victims of long-term trauma re-expose themselves to the trauma through discussion in a safe environment.

“It’s like watching a scary movie for the second time. It’s still going to get your heart rate going, but maybe not to the same degree and you know what to expect,” Olthuis said.

Two major barriers currently exist for firefighters attempting to access mental health services, and the federal grant for Olthuis’ research will help to remove those for public safety personnel in the future. These barriers are the lack of mental health services in the province and in low-population areas across the country, and a prominent stigma around mental health in firefighter workplace culture.