First responders getting more mental health help from new law

WASHINGTON — Public safety officers are 54% more likely to die by suicide than the general population, according to a 2021 study in Policing: An International Journal.

A local congressman helped get a new law passed in Washington D.C. that is helping officers and their families impacted by suicide.

“I’ll never be over my son: that’s a piece of your heart. You’re never over losing a child,” said Deb Smith, an Evans City mom who has been processing the death of her son for nearly seven years.

Since third grade, A.J. Smith wanted to be a firefighter. His mom said he’d wear her helmet when he was little. She thinks she partly inspired him by her work on the fire brigade at work.

A.J. enlisted in the army after graduating from Seneca Valley High School. He wanted to build his resume for his dream job of becoming a full time firefighter.

“That day he got the letter from Columbia I can remember was probably the highlight of his life,” recalls Deb. “He was so excited that he got that job.”

Down to Columbia, South Carolina A.J. moved to start his career in firefighting.

“That was what made him happy. It takes a special person to be a first responder no matter what it is. The rest of us are running out and they’re running in,” said Deb.

As much as A.J. loved his job, there were parts that were tough.

“When they would lose somebody, that would be very crushing. He would get very quiet,” recalls Deb.

Tough calls like that were compounded by an injury that A.J. got on the job.

“When you’re told at 28 that you can never again do a job that you have wanted to do since you were in third grade, that sent him into depression,” said Deb.

So A.J. reached out to the V.A. for help on January 15, 2016. Deb says they told him to come back in March and she recounts the few weeks that followed:

“He was in crisis right then. He couldn’t wait. He took his life February 21, 2016.”

“You feel disbelief and then you’re just numb,” said Deb.

While Deb and her husband were trying to come to terms an indescribable loss, she says the insurance carrier for the Columbia Fire Department told them that he was not eligible for any benefits because he died by suicide.

“What if he’d had a wife and young children, and a mortgage and his family would have been without anything?” asked Deb.

At the time of A.J.’s death, a federal benefit program for public safety officers did not include first responders who die by suicide as a result of job related trauma. It only gave death benefits to beneficiaries whose loved one died as a result of physical injuries in the line of duty or things like heart attacks and strokes.

That changed in August 2022. Congressman Guy Reschenthaler, who represents Washington, Westmoreland, Fayette, and Greene Counties in the U.S. House of Representatives, helped push the Public Safety Officer Support Act through. It expands on the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program to categorize suicide as a line of duty death.

“These jobs are incredibly tough on mental health as well as well as other diseases that are attributable to stress so I felt compelled to make sure that we open up the benefits programs to these officers,” said Congressman Reschenthaler.

Reschenthaler says it’s cases like A.J. Smith’s that inspired the legislation.

“This bill was long overdue,” said A.J’s mom.

Another thing it does is let officers apply for disability benefits if they have PTSD that’s linked to work trauma and those permanently disabled as a result of attempted suicide.

“We need to start to realize that mental health is as detrimental as some physical injuries, especially when you’re dealing with police and firefighters who have suicide rates that are 50% higher,” said Congressman Reschenthaler. “It is time we de-stigmatize these mental health issues and also get the resources to firefighters, EMTS, and police officers for mental health, treatment, and care.”

“I think training would be a lot of it,” said Deb. “It needs to be stressed more that its okay not to be okay. Step back when you need to step back and ask for help. "

Deb’s family has started an organization to help public safety officer and military families impacted by suicide. It’s called A.J’s Stop 22. Here is more information: https://www.facebook.com/AJStop22/

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