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Unions Lobby for Workers’ Comp for Police with PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is typically most often associated with soldiers returning from combat. However, another career plagued by a scourge of PTSD is law enforcement. Now, representatives of police unions are pleading with lawmakers across the county to address the workers’ compensation provisions that make it difficult for officers to obtain benefits to treat PTSD.PTSD and mental health coverage for first responders

Although military service PTSD is generally incurred by a singular incident or brief period of trauma, the condition manifests differently among police officers. Over the course of many years, police may encounter high-stress situations ranging from hostage negotiations to dangerous drug raids to investigations into the darkest depths of criminal depravity in search of justice.

This condition is sometimes referred to as “cumulative PTSD,” because it manifests because of a series of traumas over a period of many years. Individually, these incidents may not warrant much attention. Many officers adopt a sense of stoicism regarding these incidents, taking them merely as “part of the job.” The truth of the matter is it’s killing them.

Al Jazeera reports 1 in 5 active duty officers has post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition is characterized by bouts of:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Explosive Anger
  • Personality changes
  • Delusions/ Paranoia
  • Headaches
  • Digestive problems

In some cases, officers may become like a teenager with reckless abandon, engaging in risky behaviors that jeopardize their interpersonal relationships, their mental health and their physical well-being.

There are many documented instances in which officers with PTSD have sought to self-medicate, sometimes with tragic consequences, which may range from long-term addiction to accidental overdose to fatal car accidents.

The Al-Jazeera report indicated PTSD is in fact the No. 1 cause of police officer death, in many cases attributable to suicide, when it goes untreated.

One reason it so often goes untreated is because of its cumulative nature in officers. There is no singular incident on which to pin it, and officers are often encouraged to “tough it out.” Watching your partner get fatally shot before your eyes would be one example, but there are many other situations wherein the condition emerges from smaller traumas experienced over time:

  • Arriving first on the scene of a fatal car accident;
  • Responding to a horrific case of child abuse;
  • Comforting the mother of a murder victim.

However, one of the only ways officers can obtain proper treatment is through San Diego workers’ compensation benefits. Unfortunately, many states will refuse to award such benefits unless the officer:

  • Incurred the PTSD as a result of a singular traumatic incident;
  • Was physically injured in the course of responding to that incident.

So witnessing firsthand your work partner of 20 years suffer a fatal gunshot wound in and of itself wouldn’t even be enough to seek PTSD coverage unless you also suffered some type of physical injury in the course of the incident. That scenario is not going to be applicable in every case where PTSD workers’ compensation benefits are warranted.

In California, the rules are a bit more permissive, though the law typically requires the worker have been an employee for at least six months. Generally, the challenge will be in proving the PTSD was work-related. An experienced workers' compensation attorney can help.

PTSD is most often treated with some combination of (carefully-monitored) medication and psychotherapy.

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