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Texas bill seeks PTSD relief for first responders

Longview News-Journal - 2/24/2017

When Kilgore Police Chief Todd Hunter started his career in law enforcement more than 20 years ago, no one talked about mental health.

"Psychologists or psychiatrists ... you met with them once when you got your job, and you didn't go back or you were stigmatized in the system," Hunter said. "We've made a lot of progress in understanding that mental health is just as important as physical health and that we can be impacted by the things we see out there."

One way police and other first responders are affected is post-traumatic stress disorder, and a bill filed in the Texas House of Representatives by Rep. John Wray of Ellis County seeks to make it easier for them to be treated for job-related PTSD.

The measure would allow first responders to seek PTSD treatment through workers' compensation without declaring mental impairment.

That's a requirement now in place that Wray said is a major barrier for those seeking help - in part because in some situations, it can lead to possible termination.

"Every day, the brave men and women of Texas' fire and police departments put themselves in harm's way to ensure our safety," Wray said in a statement. "The incredibly difficult and stressful nature of their job can lead to PTSD. For too long, the stigma of seeking treatment has led to these courageous Texans feeling helpless and alone."

Wray's bill includes a workers' compensation provision for firefighters and peace officers.

Those first responders would be required to meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD under the American Psychiatric Association's definition, and their PTSD must be caused by an event or events while performing their official duties.

The law, if passed, would take effect Sept. 1.

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, anxiety and disturbing thoughts related to experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, with people suffering from the disorder affected in their day-to-day functions.

For police and other first responders - who often experience traumatic events on the job - getting help is crucial because of the seriousness of PTSD, said Mitch Landry, deputy executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association.

He pointed to this past summer's police shootings in Dallas, where a large number of officers witnessed five of their colleagues killed in the line of duty.

"The longer-lasting mental anguish - which goes unnoticed by the public - oftentimes leads to a debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder for our officers," Landry said.

Hunter said the current system makes it hard for his officers to seek treatment if they need it - especially if they could be found mentally impaired because they sought help.

"No officer wants that," Hunter said. "That would be something they would feel like would prevent them from gaining other employment in law enforcement, and they don't want that stigma attached."

Area first responders applauded Wray's proposal.

"We certainly appreciate our lawmakers who write and sponsor bills that keep the health and safety of our first responders as a top priority," the Longview Police Officers Association said in a statement.

Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said this week that job-related PTSD can be an issue for law enforcement officers, but he had not seen Wray's bill and couldn't address it.

"I'd certainly be open to reviewing that and trying to determine if it would be beneficial," he said.

Hunter said he welcomes Wray's legislation.

"Anything to alleviate those roadblocks would good," he said.

The next step for Wray's bill - HB 1983 - is assignment to a committee in the House.

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