LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For years, it’s been felt and not talked about; but mental health and PTSD are real issues, especially for our first responders.
In Kentucky, calls for change have largely fallen on deaf ears. Last year, a bill to expand worker’s compensation protections for first responders with PTSD failed to gain traction in the legislature. Kentucky lawmakers are trying again this year.
In other states, like Florida, bills that recognize mental injury have become law. Florida State Representative Matt Willhite—a first responder himself—was instrumental in getting it passed in 2018. He said the tragic school shooting in Parkland helped put the issue in perspective for other legislators.
Willhite now advocates for other states to adopt similar laws.
“Let’s not forget, these first responders are our constituents as well,” Representative Willhite said. “Let’s make sure they’re in the game, they’re on the job, they’re doing the right thing, and they’re able to take care of that person in need when they call 911.
“It’s an obligation of the state of Kentucky to take care of their first responders.”
Willhite said cities in Florida were concerned about the additional costs these added protections could mean. He knows that cities in Kentucky may be having similar doubts now.
Still, he said that the costs so far have been lower than the state’s projections (and far lower than the cities’ much higher projections), and added that fear of cost shouldn’t stop communities from supporting the men and women who support them.
The concerns of cost, though, can mean that first responders fall through the cracks even after mental injury laws are in place. Rob Ravndal, a retired firefighter and paramedic in Nebraska, reached out to WHAS11 to share his story.
Ravndal spent more than two decades as a first responder, and said he worked very hard to keep a clear boundary between the stresses of his work and his stability at home. One call, though, ended up being too much.
“I responded to a 3-year-old child that drowned in a swimming pool,” Ravndal told us. “And that call—I guess I don’t know how to say it other than I knew that call was different probably that day, even.”
Nightmares and emotional breakdowns quickly followed. Ravndal began to wonder whether he was still fit to take on his duties as a first responder; but, he didn’t want to hang up his helmet just yet.
Under Nebraska state law, he was entitled to worker’s compensation protections, meaning he could take the time off to get the help he needed. Ravndal said his fire department was supportive of his desire to take medical leave and seek help, but his city was not.
“In fact, my city had no problem even denying that the law existed,” Ravndal said. “Even when I presented them with the law and the transcripts from the legislature, there still was no interested whatsoever in backing it at all.”
After 18 months of suffering and struggle, Ravndal was out of paid time off and decided retirement was the best option he had. Since then, he has made it his mission to advocate for other first responders, hoping they won’t have to make the same choice between their mental health and the career they love.
“If I’m going to come out and say I need help, and then get financially ruined in the process, we’re not going to come out and ask for help,” Ravndal said. “If we want to end the stigma, we have to treat those with mental injuries the same as we treat those with physical injuries, and that means worker’s comp coverage for it.”
You can see more of our Stressed Into Silence series here.