Objective: Hurricane Katrina highlighted both the crucial role of first responders in times of disaster and the resultant stress on them and their families. The primary objective of this study was to describe the mental health status and symptoms of first responders in the New Orleans area. We further hypothesized that given the extent of the disaster and slowness of recovery, symptoms of posttraumatic stress and depression would not decrease after the first-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Methods: A total of 1382 first responders, including respondents from police, fire, emergency medical services, and city workers, participated in this longitudinal study. The first screening was conducted between 6 and 9 months after Hurricane Katrina and the second round of data collection was conducted 13 to 18 months after the hurricane. A subsample of the respondents (n = 87) were matched at both time points, which allowed for paired sample comparisons. We measured all of the respondents' levels of traumatic experiences, alcohol use, partner conflict, requests for services, posttraumatic stress, and depression.
Results: More than one-quarter of the first responders reported the following traumatic experiences: witnessed injury or death (70%); damage to home (93%); injury to a friend (25%); and previous loss or trauma (30%). Data also revealed that at least 10% of the respondents had significant levels of posttraumatic stress symptoms; 25% of the participants reported significant levels of depression; and more than 40% reported increased alcohol use and conflict with partner (41%). A statistically significant decrease in the symptoms of posttraumatic stress or depression was not found within 18 months of Hurricane Katrina.
Conclusions: Results suggest that the severity of the traumas experienced from both the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent recovery has important mental health implications for first responders. Reports of symptoms of anxiety or depression should be attended to so as to prevent increasing symptoms that could negatively affect the first responder and his or her family. These findings highlight the importance of not only providing mental health services for first responders but also having adequate plans in place before natural or technological disasters strike.
(Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness. 2011;5:S214-S219)