At the state level, ideas to make improvements to mental health resources and wellness for first responders is taking shape after a legislative package to aid veterans and first responders with mental health treatment didn’t advance this session.
The state Sheriff’s Association was recently awarded a $100,000 grant to use AT&T FirstNet’s Health and Wellness Coalition, an online portal to access several professional mental health resources to address members’ PTSD and other mental health issues.
“We’re trying to get the message out to all our employees that we understand this is part of the job — that you may well have mental issues or PTSD, and we want to help you through that,” said Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Peter Kehoe. “It’s OK to not be OK, because it’s part of your job.”
Law enforcement, fire officials, emergency medical personnel and health care staff are often the first to witness a traumatic scene or dangerous situation. The job comes with the increased likelihood for their own trauma and mental health issues. Many of them are veterans who experience compounding impacts on their mental wellness from their time in military service.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates at least 30% of first responders suffer from behavior health disorders such as depression and PTSD. Law enforcement officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
Kehoe says the program is vital to dismantling a decades-long stigma about mental health discussions and treatment with first responders.
“In law enforcement and emergency response… people want to be known as macho and they don’t want to admit that they’re not feeling just right,” he said. “There’s a fear it might affect their career, or that their bosses might not promote them or their fellow workers might not want to deal with them because they think they’ve got mental issues.
“…They’re beginning to be aware that they can help.”
In May, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation to provide addiction and mental health services training to firefighters and emergency medical services personnel in parts of the state with crisis stabilization centers.
But lawmakers want those efforts to go farther.
Assemblyman Jake Ashby continues to lead an effort to create similar programs at the state level for veterans, first responders and their families.
“The aim with the focus that I have with these programs is to help the people that don’t have the support to help them improve and find their way,” he said Wednesday. “…I’m hoping that it gains traction.”
First responders’ insurance often lacks mental health coverage or treatment for PTSD.
Ashby, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserves who served a tour in both Iraq and Afghanistan, first introduced legislation this session to create sick leave for first responders diagnosed with PTSD; establish a peer-to-peer mental health support program for frontline health workers and first responders suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD; and a tax-free savings accounts to cover health care costs of some combat veterans.
The peer-to-peer mental health support program would be modeled after the successful Joseph P. Dwyer program for veterans.
But, of course, those proposals would come at a cost.
Ashby plans to push for the policies to be funded in the next state budget negotiations or work to advance the bills through the normal legislative process.
“Our previous governor used to say, ‘Budgets are about priorities,'” the assemblyman said. “I can’t think of too many other priorities that would be bigger than this and trying to take care of those who are taking care of us.”
More support is needed from lawmakers to work out the details of cost and how to implement the new programs.
Ashby will continue to work with his colleagues in the majority to sponsor the legislation and prioritize its passage next year.
First responders have suffered increasing staffing shortages, especially amid long-term burnout over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is a great way to show them that ‘Hey, you may be feeling this way, but we want to help you get back, we want to help you find your way and here’s how,'” the assemblyman said.
Ashby is running for the new 43rd Senate District in November and said he hopes he’ll be more successful getting his legislation to advance if he is elected to the upper house.
Other proposed legislation to help first responders that did not advance this session includes establishing a statewide green alert system for missing military members who suffer from a mental illness and elected to join the system, creating a fire protection emergency reimbursement account for state volunteer firefighters and creating leave of absence for military spouses.
All bills died in committee. Some continue to lack counterparts in the state Senate.