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Critical incident exposure in South African emergency services personnel: prevalence and associated mental health issues
  1. C L Ward1,
  2. C J Lombard2,
  3. N Gwebushe2
  1. 1Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, University of Cape Town, and Child, Youth and Family Development, Human Sciences Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa
  2. 2Biostatistics Unit, Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr C L Ward
 Child, Youth and Family Development, Human Sciences Research Council, Private Bag X9182, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa; cward{at}


Objectives: To assess critical incident exposure among prehospital emergency services personnel in the developing world context of South Africa; and to assess associated mental health consequences.

Methods: We recruited a representative sample from emergency services in the Western Cape Province, South Africa, to participate in this cross sectional epidemiological study. Questionnaires covered critical incident exposure, general psychopathology, risky alcohol use, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and psychological and physical aggression between co-workers. Open ended questions addressed additional stressors.

Results: Critical incident exposure and rates of general psychopathology were higher than in studies in the developed world. Exposure to critical incidents was associated with general psychopathology, symptoms of PTSD, and with aggression between co-workers, but not with alcohol use. Ambulance, fire, and sea rescue services had lower general psychopathology scores than traffic police. The sea rescue service also scored lower than traffic police on PTSD and psychological aggression. The defence force had higher rates of exposure to physical assault, and in ambulance services, younger staff were more vulnerable to assault. Women had higher rates of general psychopathology and of exposure to psychological aggression. Other stressors identified included death notification, working conditions, and organisational problems.

Conclusions: Service organisations should be alert to the possibility that their personnel are experiencing work -related mental health and behavioural problems, and should provide appropriate support. Attention should also be given to organisational issues that may add to the stress of incidents. Workplace programmes should support vulnerable groups, and address death notification and appropriate expression of anger.

  • CCI, Critical Incident Inventory
  • DSM-IV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th ed
  • GHQ-28, 28 item General Health Questionnaire
  • IES-R, Impact of Event Scale, Revised
  • PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder
  • prehospital care
  • emergency services
  • critical incidents
  • mental health
  • occupational health

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  • Competing interests: none declared