New laws and grant programs expected to help improve mental health among first responders

Oct 12, 2022

Cities can expect additional resources to help improve mental health among first responders over the next few years. The resources are the result of sustained advocacy from the League of California Cities and its partners, as well as an increased focus among lawmakers on improving behavioral health outcomes.

According to the Steinberg Institute, suicides have increased by 35% nationally over the last two decades. That rate is likely higher for first responders. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that first responders may be at an elevated risk for suicide because of their environments, work culture, and occupational stress. In fact, more personnel die by suicide than in the line of duty.

AB 662 (Rodriguez), signed into law at the end of session, marks an important step toward addressing the acute and chronic traumas of duty, as well as the stigmas surrounding mental health. The measure will create a peer-to-peer suicide prevention curriculum for firefighters and emergency medical services personnel. This is crucial, as general mental health practitioners often lack the background knowledge needed to provide first responders with culturally competent care.

The bill was sponsored by Cal Cities, the California Fire Chiefs Association, and the Fire Districts Association of California. Cal Cities and its partners will continue to work with the Administration to secure the resources needed to facilitate this programming in next year’s budget.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature also committed $50 million toward officer wellness grants in this year’s budget, which will be distributed to local law enforcement agencies throughout the state.  Much like firefighters, police officers are often exposed to a variety of incidents that lead to mental exhaustion, burnout, and overall poor mental health. Improving mental health for police officers from recruitment to retirement is imperative for both personnel and the communities they serve.

Additional information — such as funding allocations, when funds will be released, and reporting requirements — will be posted on the California Board of State and Community Corrections' website. Cal Cities will also release information as it becomes available.

Both programs will be complemented by broader actions at the state and national levels. Congress worked to address the increase in suicides through the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, which designated “988” as a three-digit number for the recently launched 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

To comply with this change and to ensure the system’s longevity, Cal Cities advocated for AB 988 (Bauer-Kahan). Signed into law by the Governor, AB 988 directs a group of stakeholders — made up of county behavioral health, law enforcement, and other local agencies — to outline a five-year implementation plan. This includes the creation of a new surcharge for 988 to fund the services. The measure will ensure the state is prepared to answer the calls of all Californians in need by providing a seamless transition from the current suicide prevention system.

The combination of these efforts illustrates an overt commitment to take care of all California residents. The return on investment will be invaluable as these programs and services will save lives and improve overall wellness.

For more information, please contact Legislative Affairs Lobbyist Elisa Arcidiacono.