ATLANTA — First responders and their families are sharing their stories to bring awareness to proposed legislation in Georgia that would allow first responders to get workers' compensation if diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
State Representative Gregg Kennard (D-Atlanta) sponsors HB855. At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Rep. Kennard said the legislation would classify time off for PTSD like any other injury that happens on a first responder's job including time off and medical visits.
Currently, under Georgia law, there's not a way for first responders to get help for PTSD unless they are also physically injured.
"Almost every day they are walking into life-threatening, traumatic and dangerous situations seeing first-hand things that the average person will never witness. Things that cannot be unseen, hearing things that cannot be unheard, and they are not unaffected by these extraordinary experiences," Rep. Kennard said.
Gwinnett County Police Officer Ashley Wilson saw her partner Officer Antwan Toney shot-and-killed in the line of duty in October 2018.
Since then, she's been honoring Officer Toney's legacy and even cycled to Washington D.C. in memory of her fallen brother in blue.
Officer Wilson now advocates for first responders who are struggling with PTSD because for the days, weeks, months and years after Officer Toney's death, she too has faced hardships with PTSD.
"When I approached the department, they told me essentially 'I'm sorry, you don't have a physical injury and we can't help you," Wilson said. "So I tapped in using my own money, my own leave to find the mental help that I needed. There were days that were so dark that I had thought I'd become a burden to my family."
By using her own money and her own personal time off, Wilson got herself the help she most desperately needed at a treatment facility in Florida, specifically for first responders. It was there she said that she was able to get support and talk with other first responders who had been going through similar experiences.
Wilson said when she returned to work she said to herself, "Not one more first responder needs to struggle the way that I did to get the help that's so critical for us to interact and be with our families, our peers, and our communities."
Messages have poured in from other first responders saying thank you to Wilson for sharing her story. She said many times first responders need help and oftentimes don't know where to go.
Wilson added that while the response from members of the first responder community has been overwhelmingly in favor of the legislation. She said there has also been pushback from the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) and other larger groups that represent counties that are concerned about expenses.
In response to expenses, Wilson said, "'What is a first responder's life worth?' Because that's what we're doing every day that we go without legislation and protections in place for mental health in our first responder community. It's another day that we are putting our first responders' lives at risk."
Wilson said there's still a stigma surrounding mental health resources because for so long, as first responders, they were told to keep pushing forward.
"Just the selfless nature of first responders in general. We are the helpers, we go out and help, and we go to people's houses, businesses, and at the worst time in their lives," she said. "For us to say 'We need help', well... 'Who's going to help the helpers?'"
Wilson said she came back from her treatment being a "happier and healthier police officer."
"I serve my community so much better," she said. "When I go out on the streets and handle calls for service of people who are struggling, I can relate to them and understand but I can also give that hope."
Wilson said if the bill passes it could shed some light on some of her darkest times.
At the press conference, the sister of a fire battalion chief also shared his story.
Brandi Cook said her brother Chris Baggett worked at the Gwinnett County Fire Department for 21 years. Through those years, he worked to become a battalion chief while battling PTSD. Baggett lost his battle at the age of 39 and died by suicide.
"We are calling for you to help us get HB855 passed so that no other family has to deal with the tragedy that we've had to deal with," Cook said.
Cook added she doesn't want any first responder to have to wonder whether they have enough financial help or if they have enough time to take off work to go get help.
"These men and women see things that we can never imagine," she said.