Mental health has been a growing concern for first responders across the nation. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 30% of first responders develop behavioral health conditions including, but not limited to, depression and PTSD, as compared with 20% in the general population.
In California, Cal Fire, the state’s fire services has seen a growing budget reflecting the priority of fighting wildfires around the year. But the agency has struggled with dealing with an increasing mental health problem among its ranks.
On this week’s “In Focus SoCal,” host Tanya McRae sits down with State Sen. John Laird about Senate Bill 623, which would expand workers’ compensation coverage for California first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress. The bill is one of a growing number of state initiatives attempting to address the cause of mental health struggles and the problems that first responders face when seeking medical care through state-run insurance.
“First responders, naturally, in the course of work every day, face really difficult situations. And so I think it is natural that there is a presumption that if there’s post-traumatic stress, it comes from the day-to-day work that first responders do,” Laird said.
SB 623 would extend by seven years a provision in existing state law that states PTSD qualifies as an occupational illness that is covered by workers’ compensation for firefighters, police and other first responders. The extension would last through Jan. 1, 2032, rather than expiring in 2025.
Spectrum News’ Daniela Pardo shows us how agencies in the Sacramento area are helping first responders prioritize their mental health. Richard Alamo is a fire captain and behavioral health coordinator for the Sacramento Fire Department. He said that when he was starting out at the department as a 22-year-old, he was not mentally prepared for the horrific things he would see while out on the job. Alamo said he developed an alcohol abuse problem after being on the job. He is now 12 years sober and is in charge of helping his fellow firefighters deal with the stresses of the job.
“Our brain doesn’t know that we wear a badge and a uniform. Our brain just knows that we’re human and we’re no different than any other human being. We also have feelings and we also react to what we see,” Alamo said. “Within the behavioral health unit, we focus on education and awareness, so reaching out to our members and letting them know that it’s okay to ask for help.”
SB 623 is up against a Sept. 14 deadline to be passed out of legislature before this year’s session ends. Pardo joins McRae on this week’s episode to discuss other bills being reviewed. SB 14, authored by State Sen. Shannon Grove, would include sex trafficking of a minor in the lists of crimes that are defined as serious under California law, making the crime a strike under the three strikes law.
“The senator has been working with a lot of lawmakers behind the scenes trying to get support for her bill,” Pardo said.
McRae also sits down with Lorena Valencia, a regional administrative coordinator with School Mental Health for Los Angeles Unified School District, about how psychiatric social workers with LAUSD are helping students, three years after the pandemic.
“We’ve seen families struggling with being unhoused, with having still difficulties with finances and adequate food. So it is also just adjusting back to being in-person learning, so we’ve seen those challenges,” Valencia said.