Objective: This study investigated the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and comorbid symptoms among professional firefighters in Germany and examined not only primary but also secondary traumatic stress disorder experienced by these firefighters who were exposed to the sufferings of others.
Method: To estimate the prevalence of trauma-related disorders, a representative group of 402 professional firefighters from the State of Rheinland-Pfalz in Germany was surveyed through use of the General Health Questionnaire, a PTSD Symptom Scale, a stress coping questionnaire, and a self-rating scale to assess bodily complaints.
Results: The current prevalence rate of PTSD symptoms among professional firefighters was 18.2%. About 27% of the recruited subjects had a mental disorder according to the General Health Questionnaire. Predictors for the extent of traumatic stress were longer job experience and the number of distressing missions during the last month. Traumatic stress also predicted psychiatric impairment beyond PTSD, such as depressive mood, psychosomatic complaints, social dysfunction, and substance abuse.
Conclusions: The high prevalence of PTSD and other psychiatric impairments in firefighters indicates that they often fail to cope with primary and particularly secondary stress in their daily work. This problem, together with the individual psychological consequences and expenses related to work absenteeism and early retirement, seems to be very specific for the profession of firefighters. The present findings provide a better understanding of the relationship between secondary traumatic stress and PTSD in professional helpers and high-risk populations such as firefighters, emergency workers, and the police.