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Could this simple exercise prevent mental illness in emergency workers?

Paramedics are three times as likely as the general population to develop mental health problems. The nature of their job means they’re exposed to high levels of stress and all kinds of traumatic events.

Oxford researcher Hjördis Lorenz has been testing whether simply ‘planning ahead’ could prevent problems from occurring.

Her project asked student paramedics to plan ahead for 10 minutes every day, making sure they included one enjoyable activity. She asked the students to make sure their plans were as concrete and practical as possible – noting exactly when and where they planned to do different activities.

By asking the students to think more concretely about their days, Hjördis and her team hoped this would decrease ruminating (getting stuck thinking about the same things over and over again). Previous work by Hjördis’ supervisor – MQ-funded researcher Dr Jen Wild -  has shown that ruminating is a major risk factor for PTSD.

To see whether ‘planning ahead’ had an effect, Hjördis tested 78 student paramedics – giving a third of them the task, a third some reading on mental health and a third nothing. She found that the group who were given the planning ahead task had less symptoms of mental illness and better wellbeing than the other two groups.

This exercise is now being integrated into a larger resilience programme – currently being tested on 570 paramedics that we’re funding with Dr Jen Wild. As people working in the emergency services are at a greater risk of developing mental health problems, this work offers huge potential: not only for protecting people who dedicate their careers to keeping the public safe, but also for improving productivity and reducing sickness days within the NHS and other services. Helping these people ultimately helps us all.

Our MQ Open Mind podcast: ‘How does PTSD affect firefighters? And what can we do to stop it?’ features Dr Jen Wild talking about her research and Mat Barlow, a firefighter who’s been through the struggle of PTSD himself.

Hjördis won an award for presenting her research at our Mental Health Science Meeting. Our poster session invites early-career scientists to share their research with other scientists, increasing discussion and developing new ideas to transform mental health.    

Last updated: 21 March 2018

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