First responders have done a lot in the last year, and it’s taken as much from them as anyone else working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To give back, and to keep them running, the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan include money specifically for mental health services. Last year, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced that $50 million of the allocated funds from the federal government would be invested in Iowa’s mental health care system.
The Clive Fire Department jumped in. They applied for and received $25,800, which allowed the department to hire a doctor part-time for regular mental health check-ins for firefighters and medics for the next five years. Everyone in the department is required to meet with the doctor, which means people who want to seek help don’t have to do it on their own.
This week, Rep. Cindy Axne visited the fire department to check in and hear how the program has benefited the department.
Chief Clay Garcia, who had the idea for this program before COVID-19, said the money made it possible to make the idea a reality.
He said the hardest part of taking care of mental health is getting someone in front of help. Making it easily available and mandatory to some extent, makes it easier.
“You know, 90% of the department might not need it, but there’s 10% that does, then those 10% don’t have to raise their hands and say ‘yeah, I want to talk to a doctor.’ So we’re all doing it, so it’s just normal,” Garcia said at a small roundtable event with Axne.
Though mental health has come a long way in being normalized and accepted, stigma still exists, and it still affects more people than most would like to recognize.
“I think it’s been an incredible success,” he said. “We’ve had people that have said to me ‘I didn’t get anything from it, but I know somebody who did. And because of that I will do it again.’ So that’s pretty impactful.”
Axne has been a strong supporter for mental health.
She’s supported bills to expand access to mental health care under Medicare, to support mental health care professionals and to designate a national suicide hotline.
She voted for both the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, and she introduced legislation to reimburse first responders for treating people onsite, a riskier undertaking during the pandemic, when there was no way to know if someone was infected. That legislation became part of the American Rescue Plan.
“This is all of us. And it’s so great to see you guys stand up for this and normalize it,” Axne said. “I’m glad to hear you say this is just the same thing as a physical because it is.”
She pointed toward the high levels of stress in populations across the country and said having community leaders talk about and prioritize emotional health will set a good example.
“[Fire fighters] are seen as leaders, and to have them say it’s okay to take care of yourself emotionally, we need that,” she said. “And we need it from more men.”
by Nikoel Hytrek