"Family members continue to be the primary source of nurturance and safety for those who do this high-stress job," says Cheryl Regehr, U of T professor of social work and director of the university's Centre for Applied Social Research. "If they don't receive support themselves, it can lead to increased family stress, then family breakdown and divorce."
In a study published in the March-April 2005 Journal of Loss & Trauma, Regehr conducted in-depth interviews with 14 spouses/partners of paramedics working in a large, urban area to assess the extent to which trauma experienced by emergency service personnel affect their family members. She then used a computer program to analyze the results for themes.
Regehr notes that paramedics operate in a stressful work environment, coping daily with health dangers and changing shift schedules. Add a traumatic event, such as a death, to the mix and paramedics' emotional resources may be taxed. Generally, they bring the workplace stress and trauma home with them.
"The aftermath of the traumatic events these workers experience ripples out to encompass family members," says Regehr. "If you don't keep the family healthy, you don't keep the responders healthy and well."
She says partners of paramedics cope with their distressed spouses in various ways. Some encouraged their spouses to debrief them about the death or injury, no matter how gruesome. Others tried to maintain an atmosphere of calm in the home and to avoid emotional interactions.
"This study is a first step in identifying the needs of a population that is often ignored," says Regehr.