Supervisors OK mental health program for first responders

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously signed off on a program that will provide quick access to help for first responders dealing with a mental health crisis.

The Captain Ryan J. Mitchell First Responder Behavioral Health Program will offer confidential mental and behavioral health support by connecting first responders with a clinical professional via a dedicated phone line, website or smartphone app. The program will be open to first responders in any jurisdiction or branch of public safety. Specialists trained to help first responders will also stay in touch with them.

Other program goals are reducing the paperwork and launching an education campaign.

The new program will remove barriers to treatment, board Chairwoman Dianne Jacob said.

“First responders put their lives on the line each and every day to keep us safe,” she said. “This is the least we can do.”

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher proposed the program after speaking with firefighters and law enforcement officials around the county during a listening tour earlier this year. The program is named after Cal Fire Capt. Ryan Mitchell, who took his own life in 2017.

Mitchell’s father thanked the board for approving the program. William Mitchell, who is a fire department chaplain, said sharing his son’s legacy “brings healing to our broken hearts.”

“We’ll never know what (circumstances) pushed Ryan to take his life,” his dad said. “I was just a firefighter dad and loved watching him excel in a career he loved.”

Fletcher said the board “took an important step in furthering its commitment to behavioral health services” with its support of the program. He said Tuesday’s action “in no way implies that (fire) departments aren’t doing everything they can,” adding that depending on the generation, there is a stigma about seeking help.

Supervisor Greg Cox reminded audience members that firefighters are known for being stoic, even though they experience “gruesome and chilling situations” on a daily basis.

Fletcher unveiled the program during a Monday news conference alongside officials from Cal Fire Local 2881, the San Diego County Deputy Sheriff’s Association and local first responders.

In a related board action, the supervisors issued a proclamation honoring William Mitchell for his efforts in reaching out to firefighters dealing with a mental health issue.

Mitchell was accompanied by his wife Leslie and his son’s widow, Dennele, as he received the proclamation.

“I thank God for this day. I’m honored and grateful for this,” he said.

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