WCI Session To Highlight First Responders, PTSD Experience

22 Jul, 2022 Frank Ferreri


First responders’ mental health issues have become a subject of focus in the workers’ compensation industry, and the topic will be featured in an inaugural program track at this year’s WCI Conference in August.

One of the “hot topics” that provides lesson for workers in other fields is PTSD, a topic psychologist Katharine Kuhlman will be presenting on Aug. 23 at the conference as part of the panel discussion PTSD Injuries In Claims Filed By First Responders And Others: A Success Story To Be Duplicated? Practical Ways In Which These Claims Are Considered.

WorkersCompensation.com recently caught up with Kuhlman to get her thoughts on what the session will cover as well as what the approach to PTSD among first responders and other workers should be.

1. What will attendees gain from this session that they wouldn't get anywhere else?

Attendees will be provided a unique perspective given the makeup of the panel. We will be discussing PTSD presumption and diagnosis, but also what employing agencies can do to mitigate future problems, including a culture shift and de-stigmatization, which will ultimately get employees back to work sooner, thus saving agencies money.

2. In short, what is the "lesson learned" from PTSD presumptions and why is that lesson important?

From my point of view, PTSD in states without presumption laws (for example, my state of Arizona), make cases more difficult than they need to be, especially for the first responder. In fact, the hoops to jump through for the employee often exacerbate symptoms. 

3. What is the most important goal for first responders with PTSD?

Early detection and intervention is critical. Trauma is like a suburn -- it can only be prevented so much, and once trauma has been experienced, it needs to be treated as early as possible in order to prevent other issues. First responders need support from their employer and access to competent treatment providers that actually understand their profession. First responders that have experienced a traumatic event need to be able to purge and process the event, experience any associated emotions, and limit second-guessing themselves.

4. What are the challenges that should be addressed regarding workers' compensation and first responders with PTSD?

As Geoff (Bichler) mentioned, these are proud people and the stigma of mental health is very real. There is fear that if they report being traumatized, their firearm will be taken from them or they will be unable to work. We need to normalize their reactions and educate them and employers that PTSD does not necessarily preclude an employee from performing essential job functions. We also need to be clear that PTSD is treatable. Another barrier for states without presumption laws is the stress associated with jumping through hoops to receive workers’ compensation benefits. Additionally, first responders are often fearful of filing a claim for PTSD, knowing that their medical records will be released (again, this is due to pride and fear about what will happen to their job). 

5. What should employers know about employees' mental health conditions and how does the experience of first responders with PTSD shed light on those issues?

Employers need to be educated on PTSD and typical reactions, especially after the initial trauma. We need to encourage employers to provide resources up front, which will save time and money on the back end. One often ignored piece of PTSD and first responders is ‘betrayal trauma,’ which is experienced when the first responder feels lack of support or worse, thrown under the bus, by their own agency. Agency executives or management, labor, counsel, and mental health should all work together to find policy solutions that work for both the agency and the employee.

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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Frank encourages everyone to consider helping out the Kind Souls Foundation and Kids' Chance of America.

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