Examining the Impact of Social Support and Other Coping Strategies on Mental Health in First-Responders
AuthorTran, Benson B.D.
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First responders are routinely exposed to traumatic events while on their job. Responders are at risk for increases in psychological symptoms (such as symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), secondary traumatic stress, and burnout) and decreases in well-being (including overall resilience and compassion satisfaction). This study is aimed to explore coping strategies (i.e., social support) first responders use to defend themselves against these potentially harmful outcomes. Previous research suggests social support is a strong predictor of better psychological outcomes among those exposed to trauma and frequent stressors. However, we do not yet know how the benefits of social support compare to other coping strategies, such as positive reframing and reliance on religion. Furthermore, it is unclear which types, and which sources, of social support are the most helpful for buffering against the negative impact of stress and trauma among first responders. To address these questions, I recruited first responders from the Reno and Las Vegas areas (N = 69) and used a battery of self-report questionnaires to evaluate (a) the efficacy of social support relative to other coping strategies, (b) the relative efficacy of various subtypes of social support, and (c) the relative efficacy of various sources of social support, for improving psychological outcomes among first responders. Results indicate that relative to all other coping strategies tests, social support was the strongest predictor of lower psychological symptoms and higher resilience and compassion satisfaction. When comparing subtypes of social support, I found that level of emotional social support was associated with lower burnout and higher resilience. Furthermore, perceived accessibility of social support was associated with lower symptoms of PTSD, lower symptoms of secondary traumatic stress, lower general psychological distress (using a measure of stress, anxiety, and depression), higher resilience, and higher compassion satisfaction. Support from a responder’s supervisor was associated with lower burnout, and higher resilience and compassion satisfaction. However, friends emerged as the most important source of social support; perceived support from friends predicted better outcomes on all measures, except resilience. These results suggest that social support is one of the better coping strategies, accessibility of social support is one of the better subtypes of social support, and receiving support from friends has the most impact, for improving psychological outcomes of first responders. The findings provide new data on the types and sources of social support that may be the most beneficial for buffering against the negative impact of repeated stress exposure among first responders. Future studies replicating these findings with longitudinal and experimental (e.g., preventative) methods would be helpful for further evaluating the causal role of types and sources of social support on the psychological health of first responders.