By Lauren Heffker, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — In a move to address mental illness among firefighters and police officers, a House committee advanced a bill Thursday that would add post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to the list of injuries eligible for public employee benefits.
The Senate had already approved the bill, and it now moves to the House floor.
“In the old days, we said ‘suck it up, buttercup,’ and ‘man up,’ and that became not really a good coping skill to teach people,” said Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier, who sponsored the bill.
Members of the House Labor Committee discussed the bill in an emotional hearing during which several public servants and employees spoke about their mental health problems.
“Our numbers are rising,” said Matt Kinney, who works for the Bossier City Fire Department. “Our firefighters and police officers are dying. They don’t have the support or the means that they need.”
Kinney pointed out the detrimental effects of not treating PTSD, including substance abuse and high divorce rates among firefighters.
One firefighter from Madison Parish said that he had been battling depression since 2014 and even had suicidal thoughts.
“I was on 17 different medications, trying to suppress what was going on,” he said. He also spoke of the high cost of medication and said he would not be alive without his insurance.
Anxiety and depression have been recognized more in soldiers, Rep. Gatti said, than in firefighters and policemen.
“PTSD is not disabling if it is caught early,” Gatti said.
In Gatti’s bill, state employees diagnosed with PTSD could receive workers’ compensation.
“I’ve been wondering why this has not happened before,” said Rep. Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches, who spoke about his own struggle as a retired Army veteran.
About 3.5 percent of adult Americans are affected by PTSD, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
After holding a moment of silence, Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, led the committee room in prayer to honor a Shreveport fire chief who had recently committed suicide because of PTSD.
Lawmakers agreed that professional treatment for firefighters and policemen in early stages of mental illness is vital, yet many first responders do not seek treatment due to stigma.
“I’m one of the people who did not catch it early,” testified one lieutenant with the Jefferson Parish Fire Department. “Even being here today, hearing the zippers of briefcases in this room, has raised my anxiety. It causes me flashbacks of body bags.”