Mental-health task force hears pleas of help from S.D. first responders, counselors

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The Legislature’s task force looking into mental health problems of first responders in South Dakota went to the source at its first meeting this week.

The panel on Thursday heard stories and suggestions from firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement officers, as well as their counselors.

“Our goal is to define and diagnose the mental health issues of first responders,” said Representative Rhonda Milstead, a Hartford Republican who chairs the task force. 

The testimonies Thursday brought out some emotions and showed real-life examples of post-traumatic stress disorder.

One challenge the group heard is South Dakota lawmakers haven’t recognized mental-health issues as a problem under the state’s workers-compensation laws.

Another is South Dakota’s vast geography, that puts many of the law officers, firefighters and emergency-services people an hour or longer drive away from services.

Many serve as volunteers, because local taxpayers rank other basic services higher.

There’s also the difficulties that many have coming forward, regardless of where they work.

Nor does South Dakota have a statewide standard for how mental health of first responders should be addressed.

Milstead said the work ahead would consume a lot of the task force members’ time during the next three to four months.

First responders came to the Legislature last winter seeking a state law that would have recognized PTSD as a reason to be eligible for workers compensation. The House Commerce and Energy Committee killed HB 1142, even after it was turned into a study.

What first responders received in the end was a softer resolution that encouraged the Legislature’s Executive Board to create a task force on their mental health issues. It passed overwhelmingly.

The resolution’s prime sponsor was Milstead. Her husband is the Minnehaha County sheriff, Mike Milstead. Representative Ryan Cwach, a Yankton Democrat, had sponsored the PTSD legislation. He is vice chair of the task force.

The Executive Board established the task force at its June 8 meeting.

Representative Milstead said the panel at its next meeting will gather information about how things are, while the October meeting will look at gaps.

The November meeting will seek answers why lobbyists worked during the legislative session against the bill, she said.

Meanwhile the Legislative Research Council is analyzing workers-comp laws throughout the 50 states.

Near the end Thursday, a task force member asked whether mental-health issues have become more severe among first responders in the past 30 years.

Sheriff Milstead said there is more awareness and a broader understanding of PTSD.

“I think we’re recognizing as a society it’s an issue. I don’t know that it’s happening more,” he said.

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