In the nation’s firehouses, hospitals, call centers and police stations, many first responders are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by reactions to the everyday deaths and extraordinary tragedies they encounter on the job.

Firefighter Christopher Dick was at home enjoying a weekend evening cocktail with his wife when 35 years of buildup of emotion from responding to emergency incidents unraveled. Dick, a lifetime member of the East Greenbush Fire Department, was diagnosed with severe PTSD two years ago.

Dick was at a loss about getting help. The fire department Board of Commissioners told him the department’s insurance did not cover any type of mental health or PTSD treatment. He was forced to use his own personal time and medical insurance.

“My employer wanted to know what was wrong with me and I couldn’t explain it to them,” Dick said. “Fortunately, I’ve gotten to the point now where it’s a lot better. I do have days, I do have moments.”

Dick is not alone. He is one of thousands of first responders in the state to suffer from PTSD and other mental health problems. Law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to a January U.S. Surgeon General’s report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-Castleton, is sponsoring a legislative package to make PTSD a priority in the 2022 legislative session, which begins Jan. 5.

Ashby on Wednesday hosted a two-hour forum with veterans and first responders from around the Capital Region — the first of six regional roundtables to be held around the state raising awareness for the No Surrender Veteran Initiative. Many veterans and emergency personnel shared intimate stories or asked questions about PTSD and related treatment.

Ashby is sponsoring four of 11 proposed bills supported by the Assembly Republican Conference as part of a PTSD-fighting initiative. The bills would establish a peer-to-peer mental health support program for frontline health workers struggling with depression, anxiety or PTSD, modeled after the successful Joseph P. Dwyer program for combat veterans; allow first responders with PTSD to request line-of-duty sick leave; establish tax-free savings accounts to cover the health care costs of certain combat veterans until covered by the federal government; and create a green alert system for missing military members.

Other bills in the package would require the state Education Department, state Office of Mental Health and Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services to create a website dedicated to information about behavioral health issues including depression, eating disorders, anxiety, schizophrenia, PTSD and bipolar disorder; expand leave of absence for military spouses, expand benefits for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers and designate certain emergency and public safety dispatchers and operators as first responders.

It’s important for first responders — and the communities they help — to remember that it’s normal to have psychological and emotional responses to tragedy. They’re human. Ashby’s proposed legislation can shatter the stigma so first responders aren’t afraid to talk about it.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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