Parkland Press

Monday, January 20, 2020

House Bill 1459 offers mental health support for first responders

Friday, January 10, 2020 by SARIT LASCHINSKY Special to The Press in Local News

A new piece of legislation, intending to establish mental wellness and management programs for emergency first responders, passed through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Oct. 30, 2019, with unanimous bipartisan support.

HB 1459, has been in the works since at least 2018 and was introduced to the House by state Rep. Michael Schlossberg, D-132nd, the bill’s prime sponsor, andstate Rep. Frank Farry, R-142nd.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Schlossberg, a long-time advocate for mental health, told The Press that South Whitehall Township Commissioner Christina “Tori” Morgan helped introduce him to the idea of drafting mental welfare legislation for first responders.

“Knowing that I get involved in a lot of subsets of mental illness, it was Commissioner Morgan who told me that we had firefighters really struggle with things they’ve seen,” Schlossberg said, “and from her comments I looked into it more, into legislation like this.”

He went on to explain that HB 1459 was derived from a Senate study, Senate Resolution Six, which sought to address deficiencies in the delivery of emergency services throughout Pennsylvania.

One of the study’s recommendations was to provide comprehensive mental health assistance for emergency response members.

According to a House press release, the proposed bill would establish a variety of mental healthcare programs, including peer-to-peer support efforts and training, a toll-free helpline, trauma and suicide awareness training, and support for mental wellness-related non-profit organizations.

These services would be implemented through a cooperative effort between the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Department of Human Services, State Fire Commissioner and county mental health offices.

To cover the program costs, the bill proposes directing $250,000 annually to the statewide Critical Incident Stress Management Program.

Funding would be provided by increasing traffic violation fines from $10 to $20 and raising Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition fines from $25 to $50.

Schlossberg was asked why these areas were chosen as fund sources.

He explained raising these fines was likely to be largely accepted.

“Typically, funding sources are at least tangentially related,” Schlossberg said. “These fees, for traffic tickets and DUI convictions, haven’t been increased in about 20 years, and it seemed like something we could get broad support for.”

The mental health programs would be available for all emergency service responders to use; however, Schlossberg did point out that they could be particularly beneficial to volunteer groups who may not have as much access to mental welfare programs as professional, unionized emergency service companies.

“We would see, to an extent, these programs being a little more advantageous to volunteer companies, especially smaller ones, because for many this is more of an issue, and we want to make it easier to get the help they need,” Schlossberg explained.

For Schlossberg, combating rising rates of mental illness and suicide nationwide, especially among first responders, and reducing the widespread stigma associated with mental illness were some of his main motivations for drafting this bill.

He stated that legislative efforts like his bill not only provide support programs but also push back against stigma by normalizing efforts of emergency service personnel to seek mental wellness assistance.

“That’s one of the things that every first responder group has said to me, unanimously, that they have trouble with stigma because there’s a kind of culture of ‘you’re a first responder; you’re a superhero; you’re not supposed to get injured; you’re certainly not supposed to get depressed, or anxious, or suffer from post traumatic stress illness,” Schlossberg said. “So anytime we have this conversation, we hope these men and women know that it’s OK to be in pain, and that it’s OK to get help. And that’s a good thing.

“We ask these men and women to do really, extraordinarily difficult things and put themselves, their lives, in danger.

“The least we could do, the minimum that I think is expected out of us is that we take care of them when they do endure such trauma and we make sure that they can get the help that they need.”

On the subject of the bill’s referral to the Senate, Schlossberg said that most indications are positive that the legislation will pass.

He stated that although he would not be surprised if changes are made to the proposed funding model, he feels that there is “no question” that members from both parties understand the importance of providing these properly funded mental wellness services for emergency workers.