Hope, resilience, and mental toughness

Desert Island Discs with Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, reviewed by Annie Brookman-Byrne, Deputy Editor.

A harrowing incident changed everything for Sabrina Cohen-Hatton. She and her husband were firefighters, working in nearby stations. Sabrina was sent to respond when someone from her husband’s service had been badly burnt: there was a one in four chance it was Sabrina’s husband. She was relieved to find that it wasn’t him, but was then flooded with guilt. The injured man was a friend of theirs. Sabrina found it very difficult to cope, feeling that she had wished the injuries on her friend.

Sabrina wanted to make sure that such an incident could never happen to anyone else. She discovered that 80 per cent of injuries across industries occur due to human error. Looking at policies, procedures, and equipment wasn’t going to help her mission, but looking at decision making in stressful high-pressure situations was. That was the start of her psychology journey.

An undergraduate degree and a PhD later, Sabrina started work on national research to understand what happens when people make these decisions. Other research had been in the lab or in other industries, but Sabrina’s role gave her access to firefighters in real-life scenarios. She found that the majority of decisions under these high-pressure situations were intuitive, and not analytical. For Sabrina, acknowledgement of this fact is not enough. She is building on this increased understanding to protect against what she calls ‘decision traps’.

Sabrina describes her work with great passion, and it is clear that she loves her job. Any psychologist will want to find out more about the scientific findings and implications – we are given just a taster. But psychologists will also be fascinated in Sabrina’s personal story, from her dad’s deterioration following a brain tumour, to her mum’s mental health issues, and her own experiences of homelessness and resulting hypervigilance.

When Sabrina became a firefighter 18 years ago, she was the first woman in her station. Her colleagues didn’t use her name at the start, just a derogatory term instead. To this day many people still don’t think of women as firefighters, and in the UK just 5 per cent of firefighters are female (interviewer Lauren Laverne noted that in Ecuador more women are firefighters than men). Sabrina spoke about how damaging toxic masculinity can be for male firefighters too: they can feel that they should be protectors and not seek help for mental health problems.

Sabrina’s music choices included ‘Girl on fire’ (naturally), and she said later on Twitter she was very pleased to pick Idles. Her book for the island was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, a book which she described as a story of hope, resilience, and mental toughness; three traits that certainly seem to describe Sabrina herself.

- Reviewed by Annie Brookman-Byrne, Deputy Editor.

Listen to the programme via the BBC iPlayer.

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