TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – In Florida, if a firefighter is physically injured on the job, workers’ compensation will pay for treatment and therapy. That is not so for a mental health injury. 

For many firefighters, the horrific images of the victims they rush to assist never leave their minds.

Over time, that can affect their mental health. Some turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the stress and pain.

Tampa firefighter/paramedic Steve LaDue experienced many dark moments on his job that left him hurting.

“We never ever in a million years thought we would lose our brother to suicide,” said Megan Vila, LaDue’s sister.

LaDue took his life in September.

According to Vila, 29 years of burned bodies, murdered children and horrific traffic accidents took a toll.

“He became dependent on alcohol, almost like self destructive behavior,” she said.

LaDue’s stress became so crippling, Tampa Fire Rescue put him on leave.

LaDue had to repay the city for the time he was off because workers’ comp doesn’t cover mental health injuries that first responders develop due to their jobs.

“That put him into a deeper depression,” Vila explained.

“We have the responsibility to take care of them mentally as well as we do physically,” said Rep. Matt Willhite (D) Palm Beach. Mr. Willhite, a firefighter/paramedic, who knows a change is necessary.

A study done called “Career prevalence and correlates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors among firefighters” conducted by Ian H. Stanley, Melanie A. Hom, Christopher R. Hagan and Thomas E.Joiner from the Department of Psychology at Florida State University shows that of more than one thousand firefighters surveyed: Forty-seven percent had suicidal thoughts, 19 percent actually made plans and 15 percent attempted it.

Representative Willhite is introducing legislation requiring workers’ comp to pay for first responders’ mental health treatments.

“We would like workers’ comp to recognize that a non physical injury is just as devastating and needs just as much treatment and therapy as a physical injury,” he said.

A companion bill was introduced into the Senate by Senator Lauren Book (D) Plantation. 

Vila remembers toward the end, her brother struggled to get out of bed.

One night in September she got a call from her parents that they were on their way to LaDue’s house because he had taken his life.

“I know he regretted what he did,” said Vila. “He didn’t want to die, he just didn’t want to suffer anymore, and he was suffering. He was suffering.

She is working to make sure mental health therapy is available for all first responders, so the tragedy that struck her family won’t happen to others.

If you have something that you think needs to be investigated, call our Target 8 Helpline at 1 800 338-0808. Contact Steve Andrews at sandrews@wfla.com.

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