Protecting Those Who Protect Us is the least We Can Do

Perhaps the most powerful explanation of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, recently given to me was this: Imagine driving down the road, hitting a dog and watching her suffer and die before your eyes or in your arms. Would you vividly remember this experience the rest of your life?

Now imagine you are frantically trying to save the life of a dying human being, rushing around a burning structure looking for a child or witnessing man's depravity in the horrors of a crime scene. Would not those experiences haunt both your sleep and waking memory for a lifetime?

For too many of our first responders, these questions are not merely a hypothetical exercise, but the reality of their work lives. While we afford these brave men and women our well-deserved respect, are we really putting our platitudes of praise into action when it comes to protecting them?

We currently have a workers compensation system that covers physical injuries suffered on the job - from a sprained pinky to the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, when seeking help for an occupational mental health condition (without an accompanying physical injury), we turn our legislative backs and declare them uncovered as non-compensable conditions.

The mental health toll of protecting us that we lay upon first responders and their families is every bit as real as the broken bones, torn muscles, and lacerated skin. In fact, it may be even more deadly. According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, firefighters are three times more likely to die from suicide than to die in the line of duty. Likewise, the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health reports that police officers are twice as likely to die from suicide, often PTSD-related than they are from traffic accidents or felony assaults.

Perhaps it is the unfair and discriminatory stigma surrounding mental health disorders that still persists; maybe it is a lack of medical understanding of the true toll that these harrowing experiences (which are occurring more frequently) take on the human mind. Whatever the impediment that stands in the way of these brave men and women seeking help for work-related mental health conditions, we must remove a legislative bar that prevents our first responders from even presenting medical evidence for their claims.

It is time to recognize mental health parity in West Virginia's workers compensation system, starting with our first responders. Following the lead taken in several states - most recently in Colorado, Vermont and Florida - I hope that fellow legislators will support a bill to be introduced by a group of concerned legislators in the 2018 legislative session to protect West Virginia's first responders with mental health coverage under our Workers Compensation Act.

Not only are we long overdue in removing illogical and deadly barriers to treatment, but most of all, it is the least we can do for those who go wherever sent and do whatever needs to be done in our stead.

Chad Lovejoy, a Democrat, is a delegate for the 17th District, which includes parts of Cabell and Wayne counties.

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