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Firefighters tell of PTSD struggles at Schoen roundtable

Chris Parsons speaks at a PTSD roundtable meeting held by Rep. Dan Scheon (right). To the left are Angela Eder and Brian Cristofono. (Bulletin photo by Katie Nelson) 1 / 3
Minnesotans affected by PTSD participated in a roundtable discussion led by Rep. Dan Schoen at the Sentate building Tuesday. (Bulletin photo by Katie Nelson)2 / 3
Rep. Dan Schoen and Legislative Assistant Isaac Russell (left) listen to the experiences of a firefighter with PTSD. (Bulletin photo by Katie Nelson)3 / 3

Angela Eder said she saw the extreme toll post-traumatic stress disorder can play on emergency workers when her firefighter husband died by suicide.

"He had reached out for help, but was trying to hide it," she said.

Eder said the last line of her husband's suicide note last January said: "I died of PTSD."

Eder shared her story during a roundtable meeting Tuesday at the Minnesota Senate Building that focused on post-traumatic stress disorder among public safety workers.

About 20 Minnesotans affected by PTSD or who work in public safety attended the meeting, and several shared their experiences with the disorder.

"We need people to tell their stories," said Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, who organized the meeting. "It's hard for the public to understand that what you see, it's an injury at work. You can see a broken leg ... but the casualties here are not seen until it's too late."

He said the meeting is a "process to get us started down the road."

Schoen, who is a Cottage Grove police officer, authored a bill in the House last session that would presume a public safety workers' PTSD was caused by work. It never got a hearing in the GOP-controlled House.

Schoen plans to sponsor the bill when he is sworn in as a senator in January. He hopes Republican Rep. Nick Zerwas of Elk River will carry the bill in the House.

"We're showing concern, highlighting a need," Schoen said. "We need better understanding, and a better process."

Fire chiefs from across the Twin Cities attending the roundtable said the current system is flawed because workers are afraid of being penalized, fired or looked down upon for seeking help.

"In fire service we're good at taking care of other people; we're not good at taking care of ourselves," said Chris Parsons, president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters union.

Parsons described firefighters' experience with occupational trauma. He said after one of his first serious calls as a St. Paul firefighter, he thought he was fine, but the experience stuck with him.

"I never thought 16 years later I'd still be thinking about it," he said. "Everyone has tons of those calls, and we never talk about it, but now it's time that we finally talk about it."

R. John Sutherland, North Memorial Medical Center's director of psychological services, said this is what many of the problems with PTSD stem from.

"The people are told to get over it, hide it, cover it up," he said. "Those are the people we see problems with."

Firefighter Brian Cristofono said he knows several firefighters who suffered from PTSD.

"I buried five colleagues in the last seven years, three of them have been suicide," he said, later adding: "We spend so much time on how to save ourselves and how to rescue people, but we don't give any training time to PTSD or mental health. And all of us are going to go through it. We get stuck on this, and there's no support."

Some fire chiefs at the roundtable said they worry about the part-time or volunteer firefighters. In cities like St. Paul Park and Newport, those volunteers or part-timers make up most of a department.

"Non-career firefighters have twice the suicide rate," Schoen said.

The occupations covered in Schoen's bill last session were firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and law enforcement, as well as emergency care nurses, DNR forest officers and correctional officers.

A League of Minnesota Cities official last year said Schoen's bill was too broad and could elicit claims that have nothing to do with the employee's occupation.

Despite criticisms and his position as a minority member in the GOP-controlled Legislature, Schoen wants to continue pushing the proposal in 2017.

"I would ask you take this back to your groups," he said to close the meeting. "Let's work on moving this ball down the field so that we don't have to put any more names on the memorial."