Help PTSD Sufferers, So They Can Help Us

Jay McDonald
Jay McDonald is president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio and also serves as national vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police. He is a Major with the Marion Police Department.

Philadelphia Police Officer Jesse Hartnett, who recently escaped a terrorist attack after being shot, may well have scars beyond his physical wounds. The horror of being shot point-blank by a terrorist could leave him with emotional trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD.

It’s happened before. Just as our soldiers fight the psychological effects of war when they return from the front lines, our emergency responders here at home regularly face similar horrors. Often, the result is PTSD.

Stories from people like Columbus, Ohio Police Officer James Niggemeyer, who is credited with saving lives after responding to a call of a crazed gunman at a nightclub in December 2004. Niggemeyer shot and killed the gunman, who had taken the lives of four people. Niggemeyer is no longer a police officer, mainly because of the emotional toll of that night.

According to Niggemeyer, who’s been in counseling for the past 11 years, “the shooting changed my career path, not for the better. I’m happy to have been able to end the situation with no further tragedies after I arrived on the scene, but it certainly hasn’t made my life any better.”

These stories and current events like the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino remind us of the dangers first responders face and the horror they must confront. That’s why a bill currently before the Ohio legislature would mandate worker’s compensation coverage for emergency workers who experience PTSD, regardless of accompanying physical injuries.

First responders endure much to respond and protect our communities, and we simply must reciprocate by protecting them. Under current Ohio law, a police officer whose leg is broken carrying an injured child to safety can get workers’ compensation. If that same child dies a painful death in the officer’s arms and the officer isn’t injured, there’s no help for the officer. No treatment for the effects that would follow such a tragedy. No help for the crippling effects of the post-traumatic stress disorder. If someone breaks a leg on duty, it will be treated, and all the medical costs will be covered by worker’s compensation. The break isn’t allowed to fester; the problem isn’t allowed to get worse. No one argues with a broken leg. Should a broken psyche be any less treatable? Both scenarios result in debilitation. In both situations, we owe it to the first responder to provide help.

Springfield, Ohio, police officer Doug Pergram was shot three times in July 2000. He was told that unless he returned to work in six months, he’d be out of a job. He struggled with PTSD for 10 years and was out of the job. “I was in such bad shape that I had to go to a residential treatment facility and the command staff at the time refused to allow me to use sick time and fought me every step of the way,” he said. “I was a mess and nobody cared.”

Another officer responded to a riot situation that got out of control. In the months that followed, he noticed a change in his behavior. He sought advice from his employee-assistance program through the department and was told to keep quiet. He was then referred to a mental-health provider, who diagnosed him with PTSD. Medication and therapy have improved his situation, and he describes himself as better now. This serves as further proof that early intervention and treatment can keep PTSD from becoming a career-ending injury.

The stigma that often comes with this mental-health diagnosis, the lack of understanding by agencies, and state government’s refusal to fund needed treatment have led officers to continue to suffer in silence rather than ask for help. Other states are ahead of Ohio on this issue. Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island currently provide workers’ compensation benefits for stress-related injuries that do not result from a physical injury. Ohio needs to catch up.

Officers Niggemeyer, Pergram, and so many others who dedicated their lives to protecting us were forced out of their jobs because we’ve chosen not to protect them. Proper treatment and early intervention are the answer, and Senate Bill 5 would provide it. Ohio legislators should pass Senate Bill 5, which will enable fair and equal compensation for impairments of all types for our brave emergency responders. Let’s help them so that they can continue to help us.

1 comments

I have seen around the country that this type of legislation is difficult to pass so I wish Mr.McDonald the best in his effort. I hope it will succeed. While this would be beneficial once PTSD has set in I wanted to remind everyone that the nature of the “recovery enviornment” to try and prevent this “secondary injury” from happening has as much or more to do with the onset of officer PTSD as the incident itself. I hope this legislation is an addition to the fundemental challenge we have to have every police department have a fully funtioning policy protected peer support team, both immediate and continuing access to a known and trusted psycholgist, stress debriefings for staff, attention to the officer’s family throughout the process, a retrun to duty program that enables the officer to ease back into work when s/he is ready, etc. My hope is that departments will have these recovery systems ready to go when the critical incidents arise.

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