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Lawmakers want to help first responders get treatment for PTSD

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story contains details that some readers might find disturbing.

JEFFERSON CITY — First responders recounted traumatizing experiences in vivid detail during a Missouri Senate committee hearing Tuesday.

“If you’ve ever held a limb separated from a person, it’s weird,” said Ben Chlapek of the Mid-America Regional Council and Missouri EMS Association. “And on the highway, we have to pick up a leg or an arm sometimes. They’re heavy. It sits in your mind and it doesn’t go away.”

Chlapek wasn’t the only first responder to tell members of the Senate General Laws Committee about picking up human body parts, alongside other disturbing experiences of death, danger and cruelty during the public hearing.

Almost all of them were testifying in favor of Senate Bill 710, a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, that would make it easier for first responders to receive workers’ compensation for PTSD.

If the bill becomes law, first responders would have a presumption in a workers’ compensation claim that the mental health issue is caused by their work, though the employer would still have the opportunity to prove otherwise.

The first responders who spoke in support of the bill talked about grief and guilt when coworkers commit suicide, the horrors they see through their jobs and the stigma of seeking help for a mental illness.

About one in five firefighters experience post traumatic stress disorder, and they are three times more likely to commit suicide, said Jason Marren of the Professional Firefighters of Eastern Missouri.

When Sen. Lauren Arthur asked Marren if the bill would reduce some of the stigma about seeking help, he said he thought it would.

As that stigma is already starting to diminish, and knowledge about PTSD increases, demand for mental health care is growing but care is not always accessible.

“Sure you’ve got to recognize and ask for help, but (with SB 710) once you ask for help, it’s there,” said Sen. Bill White. “Without this (bill) it may not be there because there may not be programs in your area, or they may not be satisfactory for your purpose.”

White was responding to one of just a few people who did not speak in favor of the bill.

Patrick Bonnot of the Missouri Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, a self-insurance pool, had argued that the bill wouldn’t solve all aspects of the problem, such as reluctance to seek help, and would simply shift the burden from health insurance to workers’ compensation.

But others argued that PTSD is clearly an occupational hazard for first responders and that it makes sense to treat it as one.

“We know that PTSD among firefighters is a direct result of the job that we do,” Dave Dotson, a fire chief with the Pattonville Fire Protection District in St. Louis County, told the Senate committee.

Treating PTSD as a work-related condition “will undoubtedly save the lives of firefighters across the state of Missouri,” Dotson said. “Please help protect the lives and families of firefighters and other first responders who protect the lives and families of others.”

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu