Continuing the fight to include PTSD for first responders in SC’s workers’ comp law

Richland County Sheriff's deputies are required to take a class on PTSD, which is taught by deputies who have been involved in a traumatic event themselves. The class helps deputies realize if they or a colleague is suffering from the disorder.
Richland County Sheriff's deputies are required to take a class on PTSD, which is taught by deputies who have been involved in a traumatic event themselves. The class helps deputies realize if they or a colleague is suffering from the disorder.

Among the dozens of bills lawmakers file and fight to get across the finish line, there are a few that legislators take personally.

For Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, it was one that would have allowed public safety officials to qualify for workers’ compensation when suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Thurmond reintroduced the bill in 2015 after it was championed through the House of Representatives the prior year only to fail in the Senate. Thurmond’s bill suffered the same fate, languishing in committee until it was too late to see it become law.

Unlike other legislators, however, Thurmond doesn’t have the luxury of reintroducing the bill in 2017. He announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election for his seat.

Yet, with an increased emphasis in killings of law enforcement officers across the nation, Thurmond hopes remaining legislators will continue the work he and Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, started with this bill.

“I think the scenario of what’s going on throughout the country is very concerning and troubling for those who put their lives on the line to protect us,” Thurmond said. “People are getting out of law enforcement because they’re scared. They don’t want to be gunned down.”

That’s why Thurmond said it’s important for existing law enforcement officers to know they’ll be covered through workers’ compensation if they suffer from PTSD.

It’s a tough sell, despite evidence that emergency personnel can suffer from PTSD like servicemen do. A study by the University of British Columbia found that first responders experience PTSD at twice the rate of the general public.

“PTSD is real and people have to understand that,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. “We’re exposed to death. We’re exposed to people shooting at us. We see all the same things that people see in war.”

Part of the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a complete understanding of PTSD because it’s not visible, Lott said. People want to see a wound.

But it’s a serious disorder, said Lott, and he said he has seen deputies lose their careers and lives because of it. That’s why his agency created a program earlier this year that helps deputies recognize the signs of PTSD in their partners and in themselves.

Trainers are deputies who openly acknowledge having struggled with PTSD. Among them is Sgt. Kellye Hendrick, who shot a knife-wielding man and witnessed a fellow officer’s death.

Both critical incidents took place within four months of each other, she said. After the incidents, Hendrick withdrew from her family and friends. She started drinking “a lot.

“The reality is that a lot of the things that we see are horrific,” Hendrick said. “The things that we see we will never be able to process or even get out of memory. It changes who we are as people.”

Hendrick said her workers noticed the change long before she did. A post critical incident seminar saved her life and helped her find her “new normal.”

Hendrick is one of the few success stories. Many officers who suffer from the disorder are so overcome by it, they can’t remain in law enforcement. In fact, a former Spartanburg sheriff’s deputy who suffers from PTSD inspired Pope to introduce the law in 2013.

Brandon Bentley shot a man in the chest in 2009. Even though the man died, Bentley lived in fear of the man returning to kill Bentley, according to a transcript of his workers’ compensation hearing.

His case made it to the state Supreme Court, where justices ruled he was not eligible for workers compensation because state law said only those who suffer an injury that is “extraordinary and unusual” qualify. Justices urged the legislature to change the law.

After trying for four years, Pope still agrees with the justices. He said he hopes to reintroduce the bill during the 2017 session, and hopes someone will take over the effort in the Senate as Thurmond did.

“PTSD is a real thing,” Pope said. “We recognize it with soldiers, why do we think that it can’t happen to officers?”

Cynthia Roldán: 803-295-0435, @CynthiaRoldan

Symptoms of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms might start within three months of a traumatic event.

But sometimes, symptoms might take years to appear.

These symptoms can cause significant problems in social or work situations and in relationships, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Symptoms may include:

  • recurrent, distressing memories or dreams of the event
  • flashbacks
  • feelings of detachment
  • loss of interest in activities
  • angry outbursts
  • reckless behavior
  • exaggerated startle response
  • problems with concentration
  • sleep disturbance
  • hypervigilance

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5)