Credit: Riley Bunch/GPB News
A suicide epidemic is killing Georgia's first responders. Help from lawmakers is slow in coming
Chad Black can think of four public safety officers in the past several months who died by suicide — a longtime colleague and close friend among them just a few weeks ago.
That’s when he decided to retire after four decades of service in fire and EMS in North Georgia.
“I've never seen anything in my 40 years that's taken more lives of our public safety people than suicide in today's time,” he said.
Suicide has long plagued firefighters, police and medics — with first responders more likely to die of suicide than the general public. Those in the profession link the crisis to horrific calls they encounter on the job — sights, sounds and smells that haunt them long after they’ve hung up their uniforms.
As a result, first responders suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression at much higher rates than the average person.
The pandemic has only made the problem worse with first responders tending to the sickest COVID-19 patients at the risk of catching the virus themselves and taking it home to their families.
Georgians on the front lines are pleading for more when it comes to mental health support. Currently, the state only funds a handful of peer support professionals for all of Georgia’s 159 counties who field late night calls from officers on the brink of giving up.
“The last thing I want to do is have to go tell a spouse that you know your loved one died because they contracted COVID while at work,” Black said.
Or that they fell to suicide because of the stress of the job, he added.
Nowhere to turn
Top lawmakers under the Gold Dome have pledged to focus on mental health this session — particularly issues of parity to ensure mental health needs are treated the same as physical injuries.
House Speaker David Ralston unveiled his own 74-page proposal: a massive overhaul of mental health treatment access in the state, which he said has long been “inadequate.”
The bipartisan bill has been hailed as a historic piece of legislation that brings overdue support for Georgians suffering from mental illness. Among the provisions is mental health parity in insurance coverage, which Ralston said, will be an expectation of providers.
“They can expect to treat mental health care just the same as they treat physical health care," Ralston said. "It is way past time they did that."
But despite the attention drawn to mental health, a bill that would support first responders in Georgia seeking counseling has stalled.
Currently under Georgia law, support for mental health issues is covered under worker’s compensation only if there is an accompanying physical injury. House Bill 855 would provide workers’ compensation to first responders who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“PTSD would be treated the same way as breaking a limb, being shot, third degree burns or any other on-the-job physical injury,” said Lawrenceville Rep. Gregg Kennard, a Democrat and the sponsor of the bill. “Some would argue that you cannot see psychological injury. I would argue that it depends on who's looking.”
Brandi Cook saw the warning signs with her brother, Chris Baggett, who died by suicide after serving 21 years as a batllion chief with the Gwinnett County Fire Department.
“He saw things that we could only dream of in our nightmares,” Cook told GPB.
Baggett lived with his sister during the last months of his life. He started self-medicating with alcohol, she said, a habit he hid well until she found empty bottles in his room. He isolated himself from his family and started being late to work.
He’d sometimes talk about the flashbacks, Cook recalled, his ears burning and screams of a child he couldn’t get to.
“If you could go and line up pictures, you can slowly see the smile fade away and the light burning from his eyes,” she said. “There were a lot of small signs, but you just don't ever think that they're going to actually lose their battle.”
In October 2019, Baggett went to a first responder conference in Savannah but never came back. Though ostensibly surrounded by his peers, he died by suicide alone in his hotel room.
Black, who is also the chair of the state EMS association, was among the group of people who responded to the scene.
Baggett’s family said he was stuck in an impossible scenario: He couldn’t take time off of work and didn’t have the income to get the level of help he truly needed. He lived in fear of losing his job if others found out he had PTSD.
Anita Poole, Baggett's mother, stood on the marble steps of the south wing of the Georgia Capitol with a framed photo of her son in hand. Beside her, Cook held a pillow made out of her brother’s old uniform.
The family told Baggett’s story to legislators in hopes that it would aid in the effort to pass the bill that would allow PTSD to be covered by worker’s compensation.
“I don't want any other family to have to question what they could have done more to save their loved one,” Cook said. “That is one of the biggest struggles I know we've had. We did try certain things that just didn't work.”
“That leaves us to this day with still questions of what could we have fought harder to do,” she added.
A pervasive stigma
Georgia’s Department of Accounts and Audits estimates that the legislation would cost the state $3 million annually. It suspects that out of about 32,000 first responders in the state, only 650 would file a claim every year.
That’s compared to the about $1.5 billion paid out annually in Georgia for worker's compensation.
Proponents of the legislation said the benefits will go far beyond the small price tag. First responders testify that the profession is plagued by a pervasive stigma in asking for help.
Shane Smith is one of the state’s five peer support counselors with the Office of Public Safety Support. After more than 20 years in fire and EMS, he helps officers in his region that stretches from Stephens to Wheeler County — a distance of 211 miles.
The office was created by lawmakers in 2018 to help provide resources to first responders who were struggling with mental health problems — from police officers and firefighters to corrections officers and highway wreck responders.
Smith said his greatest challenge is to get hurting first responders to ask for help.
“We're supposed to be the helpers; we're not supposed to need help and we don't ask for it,” Smith said. “What we’re trying to get people to understand is just because we put on a badge and a uniform, it doesn't make you a superhero. You might look like one, but at the same time, we’re still human.”
Georgia’s first responders told lawmakers they need more than the peer support program to combat the life-threatening stigma that surrounds PTSD.
In front of lawmakers during a committee meeting, Gwinnett County Fire Capt. Chad Bird recalled his worst day on the job as a rookie firefighter.
A 3-year-old girl had been run over by an ice cream truck and Bird was among the first responders on the scene.
“We tried in vain to save this little girl's life while the family stood by and we had to watch them as they suffered,” he said. “I was the lead medic. I rode in the ambulance with this patient. She died on the way to the hospital. There was nothing I could do.”
The incident pushed Bird to the brink of suicide. He counts himself “lucky” that he was able to put the gun down and ask for help.
Since that day, he’s been on medication for depression and anxiety, he said, something he’s not ashamed to admit.
“Mental health is health,” Bird said. “It should be treated the same way that a torn ACL or back injury should be. I don't understand this disconnect between it not being the same. How can we expect the stigma to change if, at a policy level, it’s treated so differently?”
I'm 'healthy because I found treatment’
The House Industry and Labor Committee did not vote to move the bill forward. Instead they sent it to a worker’s compensation advisory council.
Committee Chairman Bill Werkheiser defended the decision, saying that the 110-member council is made up of “subject matter experts.”
“This is not a delay tactic," he said. "It has always been the position of this body before any changes are made to the worker's comp, no matter how slight it may seem, we do vet that through the advisory council.”
But Kennard, the lead sponsor, said the move will tie the legislation up in months of review, essentially allowing the members to “become the lawmakers.”
“We need to create a culture in Georgia where these brave individuals feel supported and confident that they can be honest about their mental and emotional state,” he said of first responders. “Most are not.”
In 2018, Cpl. Ashley Wilson, a police officer with the Gwinnett County Police Department, held her partner's hand as he died after being shot six times after responding to a scene.
The incident caused her to suffer debilitating flashbacks and nightmares. She went from being an Ironman athlete, she said, to struggling to brush her teeth.
“But now I stand before you today, happy and healthy because I found treatment and got the help I so desperately needed,” she said.
It did not come without a cost, she added.
Despite both her and her husband being insured, Wilson accrued more than $20,000 in medical debt and the couple exhausted every hour of leave from work to get inpatient treatment.
Her experience led her to create and champion the bill that would provide worker’s compensation for first responders struggling with their own mental health.
Wilson knows she’ll never reap the benefits of the legislation — included in the bill is a provision that wouldn’t retroactively cover mental illness.
“But what it allows me to do is leave the profession better than I found it,” she told GPB.
And that was her message to legislators: Do something now to fix this crisis.
“The average response time for a first responder to arrive at the door after a 911 call is just four minutes,” she told lawmakers. “And we are calling on you to respond to our call with the same sense of urgency.”
Before he retired, Black said he lost a lot of sleep over the well-being of the men and women under his command. He’d lie awake at night scared over colleagues in the hospital with COVID or if others were secretly battling mental health issues.
But since getting out, he said, he’s had his first full night of sleep in 40 years.
“It was hard to walk away from what I've done my entire life,” Black said. “But it was an opportunity to get out. And I'm telling you: This week, I feel like a new person.”