County launches mental health program for first responders

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, behavioral health experts, first responders and the father of the late Cal Fire Captain Ryan J. Mitchell gathered Tuesday at the County Administration Center to announce a new behavioral health support program for first responders.

The program is now available to provide confidential mental health and substance abuse services to firefighters, emergency medical services technicians, members of law enforcement agencies, 911 dispatchers, lifeguards and probation officers in San Diego County.

Fletcher initially introduced the policy to create and fund the program in September 2019 and it was passed by the Board of Supervisors. Since then the county has been developing the program and conducting outreach to first responders in partnership with its program administrator, Pathways.

“Our first responders deal with traumatic circumstances and they experience stressful situations while on duty,”  Fletcher said. “By launching this behavioral health crisis line we are creating a better way to protect and support the lives of those who are sworn to protect us.”

The services are provided at no-cost and are confidential. People needing assistance can call 1-833-YU-FIRST (1-833-983-4778), or visit SDFirstRespondersProgram.org.

The Fire Captain Ryan J. Mitchell First Responders Behavioral Health Support Program provides a 24-hour referral helpline staffed by active and retired first responders, resources to connect first responders to local behavioral health resources, mental health and substance use treatment and in- service training to first responders to increase awareness about mental health resources and decrease the stigma and barriers associated with seeking treatment.

“This year’s events have made it even more crucial to support the behavioral health of first responders,” said Dr. Luke Bergman, the county’s behavioral health services director.

“These women and men are the backbone of our communities, putting their lives on the line on behalf of us all. For their sakes, and for the health and safety of our communities, we need to ensure that first responders get the care they need,” he said.

Last year during a listening tour over several months, Fletcher spoke with first responders to shape the final policy, leading to his decision to name the program after a CAL Fire captain who took his own life on Nov. 5, 2017.

Fletcher learned of Mitchell’s story during the tour, had the chance to meet the captain’s father, and received permission to honor the captain’s memory by naming the program after him.

“Ryan’s legacy lives on in this program. For those he loved to lead and serve with, his desire was always for his fire family to be knowledgeable and safe,” said William Mitchell, Chaplain #84 for the California Fire Chaplain Association and Ryan Mitchell’s father.

“For all first responders, this program is for you to use whenever there is a need. Just as you serve our communities with passion and professionalism, we are a community in service to you. We are here to help you to be well and thrive,” he said.

The Ruderman Family Foundation found that in 2017, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died of suicide. It estimates that fire/EMS suicides are being undercounted by as much as 65%.

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