SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- On Tuesday, county leaders, along with first responders and behavioral health experts, launched a new program named after a CAL Fire captain who died by suicide in 2017.
The Fire Captain Ryan J. Mitchell First Responders Behavioral Health Support Program provides a confidential 24-7 helpline for any local first responder. The helpline is staffed by former and current first responders. The program also connects first responders to local behavioral health resources and substance abuse services.
CAL Fire Captain Ryan Mitchell died by suicide on November 7, 2017, at the Interstate 8 Pine Valley bridge.
“He loved the acts of fighting fires,” said his widow Denelle Mitchell, in an interview with ABC 10News in October 2019.
She also spoke about the difficult days. “What comes with that is a lot of hard work, a lot of hours away from your home and your family and your friends,” she said.
Ryan’s father, William Mitchell, became a fire chaplain after his son’s death. While he’s heartbroken his son is no longer with them, he is proud of the legacy he is leaving behind.
“Heartbreak and pride are strange bedfellows,” William Mitchell said. “It's hard to process that sometimes. We were always and will continue to be very proud of our son.”
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher introduced the policy to create and fund the program in September 2019. He told ABC 10News it cost roughly $600,000 to launch with subsequent costs as the program continues.
Fletcher spoke about the trauma that first responders face on the job. “At a time where it feels like no one will sacrifice for anyone, we have a group of individuals who are willing to sacrifice their own safety. They’re willing to sacrifice their own life in an effort to protect us," he said.
William Mitchell is one of three Advisory Committee members for the new program. He knows the need is there and encourages all first responders to utilize the new helpline.
“The need hit our family like a storm that’s never going to relent,” he said.
According to Blue H.E.L.P., 228 current and former law enforcement officers died by suicide in 2019, which is higher than the previous year. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance said 82 firefighters, 24 EMS personnel, and one dispatcher have died by suicide so far this year. Those who track the data said the numbers are drastically underreported.
The program will be administered by Pathways. The free, confidential helpline is 1-833-YU-FIRST (1-833-983-4778). First responders can also visit www.sdfirstrespondresprogram.org.