How effective are military and frontline emergency service personnel pre-deployment resilience building programmes?

Military and frontline emergency services personnel are at risk of developing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other trauma-related psychological difficulties if they witness potentially traumatising events. Such events can include witnessing injuries or death or being exposed to situations where the personnel themselves are at risk of injury or death. Theoretically, it may be possible to build the psychological resilience of these personnel before they are faced with these types of events, thus reducing the occurrence and severity of distress after traumatic events. This review identified and collated the evidence for these type of resilience-building programmes. Only studies that used an experimental group versus control group design (randomised controlled trial (RCT)/cluster-RCT) were selected for the review. Over 6774 records were screened, with 28 studies selected for inclusion in the review. The programmes included in this review were informed by different theories (‘theoretical orientation’) and delivered in different ways (e.g. on-line/off-line; group-based/individual). There is not yet enough evidence to support the assertion that such programmes can build resilience to symptoms of psychological stress and prevent a diagnosis of PTSD following critical incidents. This said, there are limitations to the existing evidence base. There is significant variety in the ways resilience-building programmes are: theoretically orientated, populations targeted, how they are delivered, setting used, and outcomes measured (with further variety in scales used within specific outcomes). This has made drawing conclusions on how effective these programmes are, difficult as they are often not sufficiently similar to make fair comparisons. Future evaluations need to overcome these limitations, thus allowing us to determine if these programmes have value in pre-deployment preparation and training.

Authors' conclusions: 

While a number of evaluations of relevant programmes have been published, the quality of these evaluations limits our ability to determine if resilience-building programmes 'work' in terms of preventing negative outcomes such as depression, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and diagnoses of PTSD. Based on our findings we recommend that future research should: a) report pre-/post-means and standard deviation scores for scales used within respective studies, b) take the form of large, RCTs with protocols published in advance, and c) seek to measure defined psychological facets such as resilience, PTSD and stress, and measure these concepts using established psychometric tools. This will provide more certainty in future assessments of the evidence base. From a clinical implications point of view, overall there is mixed evidence that the interventions included in this review are effective at safe guarding military personnel or frontline emergency workers from experiencing negative mental health outcomes, including PTSD, following exposure to potentially traumatic events. Based on this, practitioners seeking to build resilience in their personnel need to be aware of the limitations of the evidence base. Practitioners should have modest expectations in relation to the efficacy of resilience-building programmes as a prophylactic approach to employment-related critical incident traumas.

Read the full abstract...

Military personnel and frontline emergency workers may be exposed to events that have the potential to precipitate negative mental health outcomes such as depression, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Programmes have been designed to build psychological resilience before staff are deployed into the field. This review presents a synthesis of the literature on these “pre-deployment resilience-building programmes”.


The objective of this review was to assess the effectiveness of programmes that seek to build resilience to potentially traumatic events among military and frontline emergency service personnel prior to their deployment. These resilience programmes were compared to other interventions, treatment as usual or no intervention.

Search strategy: 

Studies were identified through searches of electronic databases including Ovid MEDLINE, Embase, PsycINFO, Web of Science and Google Scholar. The initial search took place in January 2019, with an updated search completed at the end of September 2020.

Selection criteria: 

Only studies that used a randomised controlled trial (RCT)/cluster-RCT methodology were included. The programmes being evaluated must have sought to build resilience prior to exposure to trauma. Study participants must have been 18 years or older and be military personnel or frontline emergency workers.

Data collection and analysis: 

Studies that met the inclusion criteria were assembled. Data extracted included methods, participants’ details, intervention details, comparator details, and information on outcomes. The primary outcomes of interest were resilience, symptoms of post-traumatic stress and PTSD. Secondary outcomes of interest included acute stress disorder, depression, social support, coping skills, emotional flexibility, self-efficacy, social functioning, subjective levels of aggression, quality of sleep, quality of life and stress. Assessment of risk of bias was also completed. A total of 28 studies were included in a narrative synthesis of results.

Main results: 

All 28 included studies compared an experimental resilience building intervention versus a control or no intervention. There was a wide range of therapeutic modalities used, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) informed programmes, biofeedback based programmes, stress-management programmes, mindfulness and relaxation programmes, neuropsychological-based programmes, and psychoeducational-informed programmes. The main outcomes are specified here, secondary outcomes such as depression, social support, coping skills, self-efficacy, subjective levels of aggression and stress are reported in text. No studies reported on the following pre-specified outcomes; acute stress disorder, emotional flexibility, social functioning, quality of sleep and quality of life.


Eight studies reported resilience as an outcome. We narratively synthesised the data from these studies and our findings show that five of these interventions had success in building resilience in their respective samples. Two of the studies that reported significant results utilised a CBT approach to build resilience, while the other three successful programmes were mindfulness-based interventions.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress

Our narrative synthesis of results included eight studies. Two of the eight studies produced significant reductions in symptoms of post traumatic stress compared to controls. These interventions used neuropsychological and biofeedback intervention models respectively.

PTSD caseness

Four studies reported PTSD caseness as an outcome. Our narrative synthesis of results suggests that evidence is mixed as to the effectiveness of these interventions in reducing clinical diagnosis of PTSD. One study of a neuropsychology-orientated Attention Bias Modification Training (AMBT) programme had success in reducing both symptoms of post-traumatic stress and numbers of participants receiving a diagnosis of PTSD. A stress-management programme reported that, when baseline differences in rates of pre-deployment mental health issues were controlled for, participants in the control condition were at 6.9 times the risk of a diagnosis of PTSD when compared to the intervention group.

Given the diversity of intervention designs and theoretical orientations used (which included stress-management, neuropsychological and psychoeducational programmes), a definitive statement on the efficacy of pre-deployment programmes at reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress and PTSD cannot be confidently offered.