BATON ROUGE, La. (LOCAL 33) (FOX 44) — Weeks before Louisiana enacts a law to widen their access to post-traumatic stress disorder treatments, the state’s first responders hint at a culture change — one welcome to admitting the emotional risks of their service.
“The way we went about things before was ‘suck it up, buttercup,” said Professional Firefighters Association of Louisiana President Chad Major, who has fought fires in Baton Rouge for more than 30 years. “Now, it’s okay to be affected, because we’re human beings.”
Starting Aug. 1, first responders in the state will be eligible for workers’ compensation if a psychologist or psychiatrist diagnoses them with the condition. Legislators approved the idea this past spring with no opposition.
“Whether it’s magic or tragic, this state’s going to be with first responders, giving the help they need through the tough times,” said state Sen. Ryan Gatti (R-Bossier City), whose bill propelled the law. “What bills like this show is that we appreciate your patriotic sacrifice in this community.”
Gatti invited police and firefighters to the Louisiana State Capitol in May to share their mental health struggles. They referenced national trends of more responders dying by suicide each year than on duty.
“Our numbers are rising,” Bossier City firefighter Matt Kinney told a state House labor panel. “Our firefighters and police officers are dying. They don’t have the support or the means that they need.”
“Even being here today, hearing the zippers of the briefcases in this room has raised my anxiety,” Jefferson Parish firefighter Derek Lowe told legislators. “It gives me flashbacks of body bags.”
Mental health professionals stress that early treatment of PTSD can reduce the condition’s grip on one’s life. Noting higher rates of substance abuse and divorce among first responders, Major said he hopes broader coverage will break stigmas of stress.
“For a long time, getting help has cost extra money, and firefighters don’t often get paid a lot,” he said. “Hopefully this law will mean first responders don’t have to choose between getting help and getting food on the family table.”
Major argues that expanded mental health treatment will also keep fire, police and paramedic officers on the job longer.
“It’s a win-win for the public,” he said. “Those people responding will be on their A-game, doing what they’re supposed to do.”