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For Minnesota firefighters, job-related PTSD takes a big toll

It takes a special calling to work as a firefighter. You often have to put your own life on the line to save others. While you make a tremendous impact on those lives, the job also makes an impact on you. The death and destruction you encounter on a near-daily basis can take a toll on your mental health.

It's a bigger deal than most people realize

Work-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be just as serious as physical job-related injuries. It leaves many firefighters with a diminished quality of life and symptoms such as:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to enjoy life

For some, the disorder inhibits their ability to do the job, leading to time away from work or even early retirement.

Understanding just how common it is

A recent Star Tribune article shed light on the prevalence of work-related PTSD among firefighters in Minnesota - and the extent to which it goes untreated. Suicide rates are tragically high among firefighters. According to one study cited in the article, fully half of all firefighters nationwide experience suicidal thoughts, and 1 in 5 take steps toward acting out those thoughts.

Minnesota ranks in the bottom five states nationwide for lowest spending on fire departments. Many firefighters don't have the training, resources or support necessary to recognize mental health issues like PTSD. And in light of the tough-guy mindset that permeates many fire departments, those who do recognize the symptoms may nonetheless hesitate to seek help.

Getting benefits when it takes you off the job

Firefighters who seek workers' compensation for job-related PTSD often face an uphill battle. Minnesota law allows for such claims in limited circumstances. However, insurers and employers sometimes push back, arguing that the disorder isn't work-related or isn't severe enough to warrant benefits.

Fortunately, ongoing efforts to raise awareness and provide support have gained traction. A bill underway in the Minnesota legislature would make it easier for firefighters to get benefits for work-related PTSD. And a new helpline at 888-784-6634 is available to firefighters (and other first responders) who are struggling with mental health problems.

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