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Another view -- Let's cover PTSD under workers' compensation

February 19. 2018 6:47PM

IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of 9/11, clergy and counselors went to New York to talk with emergency service workers emotionally traumatized by the events, especially the loss of several hundred colleagues.

If one good thing came out of the World Trade Center terrorism, it was a change in the culture of emergency service personnel in dealing with their emotions. Until that day, the almost universal practice was to keep silent. Render aid at the scene of a fatal fire or horrific car crash, go back to your station and talk about anything else but what you just witnessed. Instead, just bottle it all up inside.

And then you went home and were either emotionally absent from your loved ones or else in a rage. You drank way too much. You made more mistakes on the job.

Leo Stapleton, Boston fire commissioner from 1984 to 1991, noticed that members of those fire companies involved in particularly horrific events soon came down with serious illnesses at a significantly higher rate than that of other firefighters. With others, Stapleton was discovering what is now called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

A few months after 9/11, I visited some New York firehouses. I had been a volunteer firefighter in my younger years. As a clergyman of 27 years standing at the time, I regularly helped people through talk therapy, although some people would then need more intensive, professional counseling.

While talking things out with the men at a firehouse that had lost 15 men in the tower collapses, I noticed an older firefighter hanging in the background. When everyone else left he approached me and opened up.

I interrupted him, asking how what he was relating squared with the events of 9/11.

“It doesn’t,” he told me. “I’m telling you about an event of 30 years ago. My best pal growing up and I joined the department and together went to fire academy for training. He died in an accident there.”

I asked him what his life was like after his friend died.

“Horrible!” he said. “I was a mess and took it out on my family. My wife left me and took our two young kids. They’re grown now but still won’t have anything to do with me. I hit the bottle. If it weren’t for the union I would have been fired. They protected my job while I dried out.”

He told me I was the very first person he had ever told that story to. I asked him if he thought his life would have been different had the culture encouraged him to talk it out with other firefighters through Critical Incident Stress Debriefing and, if necessary, with counselors trained in PTSD psychotherapy.

He thought it might have made a difference for him. In another context, it did for me.

The Legislature is considering Senate Bill 553, which would establish workers’ compensation claims for police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical providers for post-traumatic stress disorders.

While there would be additional costs in workers’ compensation premiums to cities and towns and a cost for mental health examinations, it is my opinion that SB 553 would actually lead to a cost savings. This is because of a likely diminishing of on-the-job accidents committed by those with unresolved stress, the diminishing of flashback-triggered violent acts leading to financial judgments against municipalities, and a lessening of those ensuing illnesses Stapleton observed.

More importantly, we should stand with those men and women who put their lives on the line for us every day.

Rep. Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead, is a member of the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee.

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