9 Investigates untreated PTSD among first responders

The UCF RESTORES program, which treats those with post-traumatic stress disorder, is working on a study aimed at diagnosing the condition based on blood flow patterns in the brain instead of through psychological evaluations alone.

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The UCF RESTORES program, which treats those with post-traumatic stress disorder, is working on a study aimed at diagnosing the condition based on blood flow patterns in the brain instead of through psychological evaluations alone.

9 Investigates' Karla Ray learned of the research while investigating the prevalence of PTSD among first responders.

Ray discovered that the few studies that have been conducted on the topic suggest that the problem is more common than first thought.

Content Continues Below

After nearly a decade of putting on a police uniform, former Eatonville police Officer Omar Delgado now spends his days at home -- alone.

“The support I've received from the community has been amazing,” Delgado said. “But now it's dwindling down, and I'm by myself.”

9 Investigates first exposed the Eatonville Police Department's plan to part ways with Delgado a year and a half after he was praised for rescuing Angel Colon from the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub. Delgado was deemed unfit for duty because of his PTSD.

“Some people might easily say, ‘Well, you guys signed up for that,’” Delgado said. “To a degree, yes. But what happened on June 12 -- no one signed up for that.”

Delgado and other first responders have sought treatment for PTSD at UCF RESTORES, a clinical research center at the University of Central Florida.

"This was more (of) a combat scenario than what first responders typically see," said Deborah Beidel, the center's director.

Beidel said the program expanded its services to first responders after the Pulse nightclub terror attack, but she said similar efforts aren’t happening nationwide.

“I wish it was,” she said. “I would say our program has expanded, but many people do not recognize how many traumatic events there are, and how many first responders are really having difficulty.”

A lack of research about the condition’s prevalence among first responders is partly to blame, Beidel said.

A 2017 Harris Poll found that 84 percent of first responders surveyed had experienced a traumatic event while working, and 34 percent of them reported being diagnosed with a mental health disorder, such as PTSD or depression.

The same study found that many emergency workers didn’t discuss trauma because of stigma associated with mental illness.

“There's no VA for first responders,” Beidel said. “There's no place for them to go.”

A survey in the Journal for Emergency Medical Services found that EMS workers were 10 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than others. Forty percent of those who reported having contemplated suicide cited “scrutiny from others” as the reason for why they didn’t seek treatment.

Delgado said he understands that worry better than most.

“I'm here now. I've been penalized per se -- put through the ringer all because I asked for help,” he said. “I didn't anticipate that happening.”

It’s not just singular events, such as combat scenarios, that may trigger PTSD. First responders may also experience cumulative PTSD, which develops after repeated exposure to traumatic events, such as murders, car crashes and the deaths of children.

Experts estimate that 8 to 20 percent of first responders have PTSD, but many who develop the condition won’t be diagnosed.

It’s not just singular events, such as combat scenarios, that may trigger PTSD. First responders may also experience cumulative PTSD, which develops after repeated exposure to traumatic events, such as murders, car crashes and the deaths of children.

Experts estimate that 8 to 20 percent of first responders have PTSD, but many who develop the condition won’t be diagnosed.

Watch 9 facts about PTSD below: