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Project To Explore Effects Of PTSD On First Responders

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Florida legislators passed a bill this week that would make first responders eligible for workers compensation if they are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Health News Florida’s Abe Aboraya has been reporting on this issue since the Pulse nightclub shooting. We sat down with him to discuss the bill and a project Aboraya is working on with ProPublica that focuses on the issue.

The following is a partial transcript from that interview.

How did you first become aware that first responders were struggling with PTSD?

Within the first couple of months after the pulse nightclub shooting Gerry Realin one of the hazmat officers who responded to the club was having difficulty at work and he came out and started talking to the media about his post-traumatic stress disorder and it sort of illuminated all the issues with worker's comp for first responders with PTSD. The way the law is right now you have to have a physical injury to get coverage for PTSD and that's for lost wages.

Can you explain what PTSD is and how first responders are affected by it.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by reliving a traumatic event through flashbacks through nightmares. But what you're seeing in particular with Parkland because this event is so fresh, it wouldn't necessarily become a post-traumatic stress disorder yet. Having these sort of reactions to a mass shooting, that's a typical response. It becomes a disorder if the symptoms don't go away in a month or two or you start having trouble at work or you start having issues at home.

Gov. Rick Scott said this week that he plans to sign this bill. How will it help first responders?

Essentially you'll be able to get lost wages and you'll be able to get what's considered indemnity benefits. So if you're a post-traumatic stress disorder is disabling, you would be able to get a settlement from your employer or from the insurance carrier basically to compensate you for the fact that you're not going to be able to work or not going to be able to work as a first responder going forward.

You're working on a project with ProPublica that focuses on this issue. Can you tell us about that?

Yes so we're spending 2018 looking into this issue. You know there's sort of this recognition for decades when it comes to veterans dealing with PTSD. We don't have that same recognition for police officers and firefighters and paramedics and EMTs. So we have these stories up on the website right now. And we also have a survey. We're asking first responders to come out and to take the survey to let us know what's going on because our reporting is only as strong as the people who let us tell the story.

What do you hope to learn from the surveys of first responders?

We've already gotten more than 50 responses since the story came out last week. And we want to go through these responses and look for trends and to see maybe there are stories that we're looking for that we're considering but maybe there's something that we haven't seen yet because there isn't very good national data on this yet. So this is something that we're hoping to get these stories out there and to figure out what issues maybe we don't know already.

I know sometimes there's a stigma surrounding mental health issues. Have you found anything like that with PTSD?

In first responders in particular it is very very stigmatized. You have the mentality of you go on the call you deal with what you deal with. You leave it in your locker and you go home. And that's how you know you deal with these issues.

Are you a first responder with PTSD or stress-related symptoms you believe may be related to your work? Do you have a family member or close friend who is a first responder with PTSD or who has committed suicide? We want to hear from you.

Julio Ochoa is editor of Health News Florida.
Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.