Posttraumatic stress disorder and identification in disaster workers

Am J Psychiatry. 1999 Mar;156(3):353-9. doi: 10.1176/ajp.156.3.353.


Objective: Disaster workers who work with deceased victims are at increased risk of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Identification with the deceased has been proposed as one of the mechanisms in this stress-illness relationship. To examine this hypothesis, this study investigated three types of identification with the dead in a group of disaster workers: identification with the deceased as oneself, identification with the deceased as a friend, and identification with the deceased as a family member.

Method: Fifty-four volunteer disaster workers who worked with the dead following an explosion on the USS Iowa naval ship were assessed 1, 4, and 13 months after the disaster. PTSD symptoms (measured with the DSMPTSD-IV scale), intrusive and avoidant disaster-related symptoms (measured with the Impact of Event Scale), somatization and general distress (measured with the SCL-90-R), and health care utilization were assessed.

Results: Disaster workers who reported identification with the deceased as a friend were more likely than those who did not to have PTSD, more intrusive and avoidant symptoms, and greater levels of other posttraumatic symptoms including somatization. Disaster workers who reported identification with the deceased as a family member had greater intrusive symptoms 1 month after the disaster than those who did not. There were no differences between those who did and did not identify with the deceased as self. Health care utilization was not associated with identification.

Conclusions: Identification with the deceased is a risk factor for PTSD and posttraumatic symptoms in disaster workers exposed to the dead. Identification with the dead as a friend is specifically associated with higher risk for these workers.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Death
  • Death*
  • Explosions*
  • Family
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Health Services / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Identification, Psychological*
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mortuary Practice
  • Naval Medicine
  • Personality Inventory / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales / statistics & numerical data
  • Relief Work
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology