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Kansas first responders seek to normalize, provide relief for job-induced mental trauma

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TOPEKA — Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister says first responders carry a lifetime of scars, mental and physical, from experiences in the field that require years of healing.

It is the mental traumas from the day-to-day sights that are most hazardous and difficult to overcome, he said. Armbrister testified in support of Senate Bill 491 last week, which would secure workers’ compensation for first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and shared his traumas.

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He shared how the emotional damage of seeing the body of a dead child dwarfs the physical injury suffered after smashing a window in a submerged vehicle. He shared on the Kansas Reflector podcast he would tell his story to make clear why supporting first responder wellness is critical, no matter how many scars it rips off.

“It is absolutely worth it in order to get the legislators to understand exactly what it is that they’re talking about,” Armbrister said. “It’s really about destigmatizing the terms but also understanding that day to day, our local first responders are dealing with some s*** that ain’t nobody supposed to be dealing with.”

Emergency medical services, fellow officers and law enforcement organization representatives voiced support for the bill in the Senate Commerce Committee. Any first responder with diagnosed PTSD caused by an experience while on duty would be eligible for workers’ compensation under the measure.

The Department of Administration estimates adding PTSD to the list of accepted injuries would cost the state $4.5 million from the state Self Insurance Fund. As many as 387 state-employed first responders would be eligible to claim this compensation in 2023.

Ed Klumpp, with the Kansas Peace Officers Association, said this bill would mark a major development in Kansas progress with recognizing mental wellness issues in first responders. The first step he said is showing them you have their back, so they come forward when they have mental concerns rather than leaving them to simmer.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is not an incurable ailment,” Klumpp said. “Many of those reaching this advanced stage of post-traumatic stress can still be treated and return to work. But they need time and resources to get the treatment without piling on more trauma-related stress on top of what already exists.”

Armbrister’s office in Douglas County has established a peer support system and hired a mental health clinician with whom law enforcement can meet without reporting to superiors.

Klumpp and Armbrister pointed out that two border states — Colorado in 2017 and Nebraska in 2020 — have passed laws recognizing PTSD as an injury for workers’ compensation.

“By moving this bill forward, you will be demonstrating that you have our first responders’ backs, that you are willing to put into place safeguards to assure they will have the time and resources to recover and return to their chosen service to the people of Kansas,” Klumpp said.

The bill only covers firefighters, paramedics, EMS workers and police, but some supporters are seeking to add additional posts like dispatchers to the list.

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J.D. Smith, a paramedic in Butler County, said in his 17 years on the job he has known several EMS workers who have committed suicide. He said the bill means more than words can describe toward ensuring that more of his colleagues do not feel without help.

He said if the barriers to mental health services were torn down for first responders, those EMS may still be alive today.

“We have to change the mindset,” Smith said. “We have to get people to understand that they need treatments and so that removing a barrier toward this makes people better and healthier.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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