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Local first responders battle PTSD with education

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin - 1/21/2019

Jan. 20--About 20 years ago, Walla Walla Fire Chief Bob Yancey responded to a call outside of town where a young patient died.

Just describing the situation brings bad memories, Yancey said. It's PTSD -- post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

"Back then, we were told to suck it up," Yancey said. It was considered part of the job.

Now, emergency response personnel can receive workers' compensation for PTSD claims thanks to a Washington state law passed last year. Here, as elsewhere, the new law has created another avenue for agencies dealing with the disorder.

Yancey said PTSD is "a very new and complex problem those of us in the service have been struggling with over the last year." He said his department has seen personnel suffer from the disorder, but no claims had been submitted through the city's human resources department -- where workers' compensation claims are filed. College Place Fire Department Chief David Winter also said his department had no claims yet.

Under the law, workers can file post-traumatic stress disorder claims through their insurance and the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, after proper documentation is provided, such as a doctor filing the diagnosis with an employee's insurance company.

Criteria such as repeated, disturbing and unwanted memories of the stressful experience, feeling jumpy or easily startled, difficulty concentrating and others are on the National Center for PTSD's checklist to help doctors diagnose the problem.

But just getting to the doctor can be an issue.

Changing times

Yancey said his department recently has taken steps to help address the need, offer support to those suffering from PTSD, help identify at-risk employees, and urge them to seek professional help, if needed. He said the department has had a support team available for at least 20 years, but changing times call for switching tactics.

"We're kind of moving away from the (support) team toward education before something happens," Yancey said.

One of those educational times was recent training using guidelines from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation Inc. for people showing signs of mental health issues, he said.

Several fire department employees attended and became certified to handle difficult situations within the fire department. Yancey said peer-to-peer help is one of the most effective ways of dealing with the PTSD.

The foundation has a plethora of courses, including Group Crisis Intervention, which Walla Walla firefighters took. The course highlighted "core elements of a comprehensive, systematic and multicomponent crisis intervention curriculum," according to its description, and attendees were taught several group crisis interventions such as demobilizations, defusings and how to debrief critical incident stress.

"It's not meant to replace clinical help," ICISF media spokesman Richard Barton said.

Support from co-workers worked in some cases because they often encountered the same ordeals, he said. Barton also said the foundation, founded in 1989, was just one of many providing educational tools.

Yancey said other training, such as Adult Mental Health First Aid, also was provided to firefighters. That course covered how to help someone experiencing a mental health crisis, he said.

Getting help

Similarly, the Walla Walla Police Department has several staff who are trained to give peer counseling and guidance, police Sgt. Kevin Braman said.

"We have partnered with Comprehensive Mental Health in the past for staff training regarding this as well as suicide prevention and awareness," he said.

Getting help can be easy.

If someone still needs to file PTSD or other claims, Yancey and Braman said employees work with the city's human resources department.

"Treatment for PTSD is addressed like any other injury or disease through the city's insurance," Yancey said. "We will continue to invest in training and education in the field of mental health to protect our most valuable resources, our employees."

Braman, at the police department, said, "Our policies recognize PTSD as an occupational disease and guide both employees and supervisors through the process if one should be impacted by this."

Walla Walla Human Resources Director Pam Taylor said it was relatively easy to apply for workers' compensation.

"Employees complete a claim form and seek medical attention," she said. "We use a third-party administrator, Matrix Absence Management, to process claims. Normally, mental conditions or mental disabilities caused by stress do not fall within the definition of occupational disease for workers' compensation. Firefighters and police officers are now exempted and covered."

She said one person had requested a PTSD claim before the law changed, but didn't have medical documentation for it to be approved.

Also, anonymous help is available.

Other means

Beyond peer help and workers' compensation, all city workers can access the Employee Assistance Program. Taylor said EAP offers up to three free phone counseling sessions, directs people for further therapy and provides help on other issues such as parenting, leadership, finances, legal and more.

People also can call the number anonymously 24/7, she said, which is key.

"We don't want them to feel uncomfortable," Taylor said.

Uniformed police officers and firefighters have medical and vision health insurance through Law Enforcement Officers' and Fire Fighters' Trust, while other employees have Association of Washington Cities health insurance. All employees have dental insurance through Delta Dental, and all have AWC EAP through ComPsych Corporation, she said.

Taylor said she doesn't know who has accessed the Employee Assistance Program, but she was able to see other statistics. Seven employees had called the 800 number between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2018, or about 2.8 percent. Sixteen employees, or 4.94 percent, called in 2017.

"I'm not surprised by the utilization numbers," Taylor said. "Every year is different, and employees experience different challenges all throughout their lives. You never know when someone might need some additional support or guidance to work through difficult challenges. As an HR director, having an EAP available for employees to use is one of the most valuable resources we have to offer. While it is completely confidential, I know from employee feedback that it has turned some lives around and even saved lives."

Emily Thornton can be reached at emilythornton@wwub.com or 526-8325.

Emily Thornton can be reached at emilythornton@wwub.com or 509-526-8325.

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