The Bulletin Board

New law requires PTSD training for corrections officers, first responders

By: - July 14, 2022 2:28 pm

Emergency responders often receive some mental health training, but it may not focus on post-traumatic stress or be required. (Oliver Helbig | Getty Images)

Corrections officers, firefighters, police officers, and other first responders who aren’t receiving mental health training on post-traumatic stress disorder will have to under a bill signed by Gov. Chris Sununu.

Senate Bill 357 also creates a study commission looking at the costs of the training as well as life insurance payouts, retirement benefits, and workers compensation for first-responders who die by suicide. The legislation had the support of the fire, police, prison, and emergency medical services leaders in the state. 

In testimony before the Senate Executive Departments and Administration Committee in January, John McAllister of Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire said the Journal of Occupational Health estimates that 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Emergency responders often receive some mental health training, but it may not focus on post-traumatic stress or be required.

New firefighters, for example, are required to take stress-management training to help identify the stressors of emergency response work and know how to respond when they recognize symptoms in themselves or others. It’s available to on-call and volunteer firefighters as well as emergency services personnel, but they are not required to take it.

Under the new law, it will no longer be optional, said Justin Cutting, named director of the Division of Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services last year. He said he and other emergency response leaders in the state had already committed to prioritizing mental health wellness and had begun expanding training.

In June, they partnered with mental health providers to host a daylong wellness and stress management training; they are considering holding a second session because they had more people register than they could accommodate. And last spring, Cutting’s division hired a part-time behavioral health program coordinator. “They can focus on the content and delivery in all things in this area because it is that important,” he said.

Richelle Angeli, Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said frontline staff and corrections officers receive mental illness training that includes suicide prevention and postvention for both inmates and staff; post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma; stress management, the impacts of stress on the body, self-care, and trauma-informed corrections. 

NAMI NH offers some of that training. The new law will standardize post-traumatic stress disorder training by requiring emergency responders to take it through the Police Standards and Training Council or the division of Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services.

Angeli said her department’s leadership team recognizes the value in annual and ongoing training focused on behavioral and mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, because the job comes with many stressors.

Staff are expected to make split-second decisions while under intense scrutiny, she said. They also must work with potentially dangerous individuals and perform difficult duties while in a challenging environment. 

“The volatile things that are said and done to staff coupled with long, stressful shifts take a physical and emotional toll on the team leading to a host of personal problems from divorce to substance dependency and chronic health conditions,” Angeli said in an email. “The main mental health stressors we have is forced overtime as a result of being short staffed. Not only the hours itself but the fact that it is overtime in a prison makes it much more difficult.” 

In 2021, the department created an employee wellness team to help staff and their families appropriately manage the stressors that come with working in corrections, she said. The state police have also adopted a mental health and wellness program for its staff; Riverbend Community Mental Health recognized the program in October with its “Champions Award.” But Russell Conte, mental health and wellness coordinator for state police, told the committee in January that he saw no negatives to the bill and described the mental health training provided at the police academy as “minimal.”

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.