Should workers' comp for teachers cover PTSD?
In the United States, workers' compensation programs were created to cover lost wages, medical bills, and other related expenses arising from work-related injuries and illnesses. They were not created to provide compensation to individuals picking up random gigs like babysitting jobs, although California seems to disagree.
While physical workplace injuries are covered — like burns, dismemberments, lacerations, broken bones, and head injuries — emotional injuries like PTSD and anxiety are not.
The lack of coverage for emotional injuries hasn't been much of an issue until recent years. Ever since school districts began keeping track of staff injuries caused by students, it's come to light that the physical injuries aren't the injuries that last. Teachers who get kicked, bitten, and scratched on a regular basis by students heal fast on the outside but suffer the long-term effects of invisible injuries like anxiety and PTSD.
Teachers subjected to physical and emotional abuse from students on a daily basis don't have much recourse for mental health care. They can try to get therapy covered by insurance, or pay out of their own pockets. Sometimes therapy isn't enough. With PTSD, for example, it doesn't just go away by talking it out. Therapies need to be done that help the person rewire his brain and the way the nervous system functions.
Is it time for PTSD and anxiety to be considered real injuries?
If anyone can get emotional injuries recognized as valid injuries deserving of compensation, it's going to be schoolteachers. In North Dakota, school districts are looking for ways to get emotional injuries covered by workers' compensation, but not everyone agrees.
Representative Marvin Nelson says school staff should sue the school district instead. The problem is, teachers who take on their employers to get compensated for something like anxiety or PTSD might end up worsening their symptoms just by the stress of having to battle it out in court. Worse, they could be retaliated against pending the outcome of the case, and that possibility will deter many from initiating a claim.
If every teacher with PTSD had to file a lawsuit to receive compensation, the courts would be tied up in the same excessive litigation workers' comp was designed to thin out.
A brief history of workers' comp programs
These programs were established in the early 1900s and are regulated at the state level. Although each state's laws differ, they share the common intention to provide benefits to injured workers regardless of fault.
Prior to workers' compensation, employees had to prove employer negligence in a lawsuit to get compensated. If an employee contributed to the accident in any way, he would lose his case. Workers' comp programs also decrease litigation and prevent employees from having to take on their employers. Instead of going after the employer, pursuing a workers' comp claim is requesting benefits from the employer's insurance company. Employers are required to carry this insurance, and claims are paid by the insurance company, not the employer. This minimizes the animosity between employer and employee in most cases, and there are laws that protect injured workers from retaliation.
What would the true cost of coverage be?
If emotional injuries could be treated the same way as physical injuries, and recovery could be projected somewhat accurately, the cost might not be that great. However, each person responds differently to treatment — and sometimes not at all.
A physical injury needs to be treated only once it becomes visible. The problem with emotional injuries like PTSD is that the trauma can take years to develop into a noticeable problem. Early intervention, according to studies reported by Psychiatry Online, can prevent the effects of traumatic fear memories. However, it's not an exact science, and not everyone develops PTSD the same way.
Compensation is needed, but in a different form
There's no denying that many teachers are suffering from their daily interactions with challenging students and they deserve access to help. Perhaps what's needed is a program that provides ongoing access to mental health care for teachers and other school staff members rather than opening the doors for workers' comp claims.