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Lifting the burden: Initiative to help MN first responders with PTSD carry emotional load

Communities that KARE highlights a Minnesota coalition working to protect those who've sworn to serve and protect their communities.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — The new Minnesota Public Safety Wellness Initiative brings attention to the firefighters and law enforcement officers leaving their jobs because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"We owe it to our first responders out there who are bravely serving, to also take care of them, and that's what this coalition is all about," explained Dr. Margaret Gavian, a psychologist and founder of Blue Peak Consulting. She specializes in treating trauma for high-stress jobs and training first responders to stay healthy on the job. 

She is one of the supporters of the new initiative, which is comprised of 11 organizations across health, safety, and government industries: the League of Minnesota Cities, Metro Cities, Minnesota Sheriff's Association, National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, Minnesota Association of Small Cities, Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association, Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Minnesota Inter-County Association, Association of Minnesota Counties, and Government Human Resource Professionals.

"We often aren't thinking about actually the human being who is walking into a family situation in which dad has fallen on the ground and having a heart attack, and the toll that that kind of scene takes on each individual. Or, the car wreck they're responding to, pulling injured families out with mothers screaming and children being gravely injured. Those types of calls take a huge toll," explained Dr. Gavian.

The consensus is that PTSD is treatable. First we need to break the stigma. "About 92% of first responders will say, 'If I put my hand up for help, I'm seen as weak. My brothers and sisters can't depend on me. My job may be at risk.' That stigma is really a barrier," said Dr. Gavian. 

Change starts with education. First responders get a lot of training on how to stay safe on duty. The hope is to do the same for their mental health. 

"What we know about first responders [is] they experience mental health diagnoses at a much higher rate. More first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty, which is an abysmal statistic. For example, half of all firefighters think about wanting to end their own lives. So in that way, first responders experience more depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, addiction, and substance use issues than the general population," said Dr. Gavian.

The initiative's organizations hope to get more first responders help with PTSD with funding through legislation. This is where the League of Minnesota Cities shows its expertise. The League, governed by a Board of Directors consisting of local elected and appointed city officials, serves more than 800 member cities through advocacy, education and training, policy development, risk management, and other services. 

"If you talk to doctors at practices in the field, it's an 80% to 90% effective treatment rate if you get the right protocol and you get it diagnosed properly, [and if] you get people in the right sort of treatment center. That's one of our real goals with this," explained Dan Greensweig, Administrator at League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. 

The number of Minnesota public safety professionals struggling with mental wellness is escalating. According to statistics provided by the initiative's partners, the number of duty disability applications filed by Minnesota public safety professionals has more than doubled since 2019 (118 in 2019; 307 in 2021), and 80% of these applications are PSTD-related. In addition, the average age of public safety PTSD claimants in Minnesota since 2013 is 42 years.

"PTSD is real and serious, but in most cases, treatment and ongoing support should not result in a duty disability retirement," said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. 

Greensweig adds that this initiative is all about preventing the loss of talented and dedicated law enforcement and first responders. "It's a lot of people from lots of different perspectives who have an interest in solving this. [PTSD in first responders] is a statewide problem; this is a social problem; this is a public health problem. It's not something that any one of us can just solve on our own. We've got to come together as a society and address this. I think this is a great step towards doing this." Greenweig also offers there's a real bright spot, too, saying, "I think there's a lot of hope in the future, there's a lot of hope that we're going to have a healthier, more vibrant public safety."

Through programs, such as peer support programs within Minnesota departments, there is an opportunity to reduce the stigma and provide care to public safety personnel to help prevent PTSD. To learn more about this issue, visit the League of Minnesota Cities' PTSD and Mental Health Toolkit for public safety personnel.

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