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Testing Communicated Narrative Sense-Making Theory: A Translational Storytelling Intervention for First Responder Mental Health and Well-being

Trevor Kauer, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


First responders experience high levels of stress/trauma/difficulty and are at greater risk of suicide as members of a high-reliability occupation. If stressors are ignored, these public safety employees experience significant mental health challenges. A contributing factor to first responders’ mental health crisis is their concealment or nondisclosure of stories associated with providing public safety services to their communities, including, but not limited to, fire services and emergency medical services. Whether or not first responders disclose their stories is influenced by a number of barriers, including mental health and disclosure stigma, working in a culture of silence, and the tellability of their stressful, traumatic, and difficult stories. Unfortunately, current mental health support resources/programs for first responders struggle to manage these barriers; as a result, first responders struggle to tell and make sense of their stories. Yet, given the opportunity to make sense of their story can benefit psychosocial health. Grounded in Communicated Narrative Sense-Making theory (CNSM; Koenig Kellas, 2022), the present study tested a translational storytelling intervention that engaged first responders in an expressive writing exercise to make sense of difficulty, based on the contextual barriers of first responders concealing untellable tales. The purpose of the dissertation was to assess the impact of a longitudinal narrative sense-making intervention on individual, interactional, and occupational well-being. Using an ethnographic/observation pilot study to culturally ground the intervention in the sample’s mental health and support resource needs, I designed an intervention that asked first responders to expressively write an untellable tale for three consecutive days. Well-being was quantitatively assessed in a pre-test and after each writing day; one week later, qualitative feedback was collected. Results from repeated measures ANOVAs revealed partial support for the study’s hypotheses, indicating that first responders’ positive affect, negative affect, and depression symptoms significantly decreased over time. Qualitative feedback revealed the intervention influenced participants sense-making and well-being. The intervention significantly contributes to CNSM/narrative scholarship and has meaningful practical implications for improving first responders’ health/well-being.

Subject Area

Communication|Social research|Mental health

Recommended Citation

Kauer, Trevor, "Testing Communicated Narrative Sense-Making Theory: A Translational Storytelling Intervention for First Responder Mental Health and Well-being" (2023). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI30570549.