New law could give Virginia's first responders more access to mental health, support services

Governor McAuliffe signs legislation to increase support for first responders.

VIRGINIA – On Friday, Gov.Terry McAuliffe signed another tool in the fight to give first responders the support they need in their highly stressful and dangerous jobs.

“It is there, it is present, it's a very real thing, and it needs to be taken serious and these kind of services need to be offered in all departments,” said Brian Clingenpeel, chaplain for Roanoke County Fire and Rescue.

The legislation titled "Peer Support for First Responders" is an effort to make mental health and support services more available and comfortable for first responders.

“Being able to confide in somebody who's been there done that and has specialized training is paramount because you have to be able to trust that when I express these things, it's not going to spread everywhere else,” said Lt. Andrew Pulley, with the Roanoke City Police Department.

Confidentiality is a main component of the legislation. Lt. Pulley says sometimes first responders fear the ripple effects of their request for help, so they stay silent. But silence can be dangerous.

"Every time you add a stressor and then you have a reaction to that stressor, it compounds itself. So if you allow those to build up over time, then that begins to affect your work, begins to affect the way you think,” says Lt. Pulley.

Cases involving children can be the most trying on a first responder's mental health. In the business of law enforcement, fire and EMS, many times the job is hard to escape.

“I think you operate on a lot of adrenaline to begin with, and then later on is when you begin to see some of the effects and stress of what you've seen,” says Clingenpeel.

“Every time you go to an event, something that's traumatic, you take some of that with you,” says Lt. Pulley.

Both Clingenpeel and Lt. Pulley say they hope the law also helps break the stigma surrounding mental health services for first responders.

In a statement to WSLS 10, Gov. McAuliffe said, "The legislation I signed today ensures our first responders receive the professional support they need to help manage trauma they have experienced in the line of duty.”

The law will take effect July 1.