MADISON (WKOW) — Across the country, police officers, firefighters, and paramedics are facing a mental health crisis, with more losing their lives to suicide than line of duty deaths.
Nationwide, a Ruderman Family study showed, 103 firefighters died by suicide in 2017 while 93 died in the line of duty in that same year. The study shows a similar trend for police officers. According to the study, 140 officers took their own lives while 129 died in the line of duty.
In Wisconsin, Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of Wisconsin, said he sees the toll it’s taking firsthand.
“I have been to more funerals for firefighters that have taken their lives than I have of firefighters that have died in the line of duty,” he said.
A firefighter himself, Mitchell said many of his fellow first responders are struggling with the compounding stress from the incidents they see everyday.
“Over time it wears on you,” he said. “We see it all the time. “People are hurting and we don’t want firefighters taking their own lives because of our jobs.”
Unfortunately, Mitchell said in Wisconsin, it’s not easy for firefighters to get help.
The state only requires workers compensation for mental harm or emotional stress if an injured employee shows, “that it resulted from a situation of greater dimensions than the day-to-day mental stresses and tensions which all employees experience.”
Police and firefighters are held to that same standard, so although the stress they see on a day-to-day basis is far greater than the average Wisconsinite, it’s not greater than that of the average officer or firefighter.
“The burden of proof is impossible,” Mitchell said. “It’s what we see overtime, day in and day out that really starts to wear on you. Then you really don’t know when it hits you.”
Mitchell said that often means firefighters and officers need to use their own sick days, take unpaid time off and/or pay out of pocket for mental health treatment, even though those symptoms can be traced to the job.
“That’s just an additional stress if you also have to worry about keeping your job also while you have PTSD,” he said.
Sen. Andre Jacque (R- De Pere) introduced a bill to change that by excluding first responders from the “greater dimensions” standard.
He said the idea came after learning an officer he hoped to honor for life-saving efforts in his district, was suffering from PTSD.
“It’s vitally important that we provide that kind of support for individually that are really put in a difficult situation by the extraordinary strains that they are put under on a daily basis,” he said.
The bill has a number of co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle and Jacque expects bipartisan support as it moves forward.
Mitchell said he’s counting on it as well.
“We just ask that elected officials put aside their partisan differences when it comes to taking care of those taking care of others,” he said.
Sen. Jacque introduced a similar bill in the 2018 session but it failed. He said that was due to lack of support from the worker’s comp advisory council.
This year, he said the council supports the bill because he added a provision that workers comp only applies if a licensed mental health professional can provide the PTSD diagnosis and link it to the job.
The bill is scheduled for a public hearing on Dec. 10.