Kansas first responders deserve workers compensation benefits for PTSD

March 9, 2021 3:33 am

Titled “Spent,” this image by Daniel Sundahl was made around 4 a.m. after a busy night as his partner sat in the ambulance after a call. The repeated exposure to traumatic situations and stress can impact the mental health of first responders. It is time to help the helpers. (Daniel Sundahl, dansunphotos.com)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Chrissy Bartel is president of the Kansas Emergency Medical Services Association‘s Peer Support Society.

Every day, Kansas’ first responders answer the call to help their fellow citizens in their time of need. Due to the nature of their job, responders are exposed to many hazards, physically as well as mentally. The physical injuries can be seen, but the emotional damage that occurs from what the first responder has seen is harder to recognize and even harder to treat.

Often, this unseen injury leads to catastrophic outcomes for the person who is trying to help those in need.

Our firefighters, law enforcement officers and EMS providers face challenging situations. The repeated exposure to traumatic situations and stress can impact their mental health. They see the worst of the worst. A responder may have to respond to a seriously critical patient, the fatality of a child or even be physically attacked. After time, this accumulation of stressful events can be a struggle for first responders. If left untreated, these mental injuries can further develop into post traumatic stress disorder.

First responders are committing suicide at an alarming rate. The rate of PTSD in first responders is as high as 30%. PTSD and depression rates among responders are almost five times higher than the national average.

The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders reported there are more first responder deaths by suicide than in the line of duty each year.

“First responders are heroes who run towards danger every day to save the lives of others,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “They are also human beings, and their work exerts a toll on their mental health. We should support them in every way possible — to make sure that they feel welcome and able to access life-saving mental health care. This white paper should serve as a critical call to action to all who care about our heroes in red and blue.”

Kansas state law does not recognize PTSD as an eligible workman’s compensation claim. There are no job-related mental health benefits; care is only covered if an employee received a physical injury.

Due to the cost of paying out of pocket, many responders do not seek the help that they desperately need. This leads to untreated mental injuries that can be debilitating, and stress that develops into PTSD, depression, substance abuse and suicide.

These responders who have dedicated their lives to saving others may no longer be able to perform in their professional capacity, or even be the husband, wife, father, mother, brother or sister to those who are the closest to them.

As a paramedic, I have experienced the toll that critical events take on a fellow first responder. I have lost friends and peers to suicide and sadly, there are many more who have had suicidal thoughts.

As president of the Kansas Emergency Medical Services Association‘s Peer Support Society, I receive phone calls and messages weekly from departments and responders who are in desperate need of help with their mental health and well-being.

They’re trying to find much-needed resources, yet because the injuries are invisible, this critical help is difficult to find. The resources are scarce and responders are then left to suffer in silence.

House Bill 2393 supports fire, EMS and law enforcement officers by adding PTSD to workman’s compensation. It is urgent that our legislators vote to pass this bill and solve this problem. Just in the last week of February, there were two responder suicides within days of each other. We do not have time to waste.

The correlation between the work of first responders and mental health injuries is clear. If we, as a state, continue to expect our first responders to run into situations that others are running away from, we must provide the help that they need. It is time to help the helpers and show support to Kansas first responders.

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Chrissy Bartel
Chrissy Bartel

Chrissy Bartel serves as the director of Norwich Ambulance Service. During her 18-year career, she has worked for both urban and rural EMS departments. This has provided her the opportunity to experience a range of emergency situations and a unique perspective on the struggles of EMS providers. Chrissy has a strong passion for the mental health well-being of first responders. Education, resources and available support are priorities for her. She is currently the FRST Midwest SC Kansas peer support regional coordinator and president of the Kansas Emergency Medical Services Association's Peer Support Society.