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Utah legislator seeks $1M in mental health help for stressed first responders

Sandy ambulance is pictured on Thursday Oct 1, 2020.
A Sandy ambulance is pictured on Thursday Oct 1, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — One Utah lawmaker wants to provide first responder agencies throughout the state with $1 million to develop or enhance their mental health resources.

“We have seen an increase in mental health needs ... but especially for our first responders, we have not seen the expansion in the kinds of programs that are specific to them,” bill sponsor House Minority Whip Karen Kwan, D-Murray, told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee on Monday.

HB248 would require the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to administer a grant program to provide mental health resources for first responders. The bill would include a one-time appropriation of $1 million from the general fund.

Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt also said that over the years he’s seen a “marked” increase in the amount of stress that officers face. Programs are needed to identify mental health stress on first responders, he said.

The Salt Lake Valley has experienced five suicides of first responders due to the stress they took on in their jobs — three firefighters, one police officer and one dispatcher, said Layne Hilton, behavioral health and wellness officer for Unified Fire Authority, adding that they all came from areas with inadequate support for mental health programs.

Becky Pickle, a spouse of a longtime firefighter, said that when her husband earned his badge, “there was nothing more exciting to him. It was a dream come true.”

But as the years passed, exposure to repeated trauma “piled up and he began to put walls up around him,” Pickle explained.

She said her husband eventually became “a different human being” who faced severe nightmares that caused him to scream in pain or anger. He became physically violent in his sleep.

Pickle said she “begged” her husband to get help, but he initially didn’t realize that he needed it. He did attend an employee assistance program through his work, which only allowed for six visits. After, he felt like he had been cured, but he still faced mental health issues, she said.

At the beginning of 2020, Pickle said she needed to ask her husband to move out of their home. He then started spending several hours a week in therapy, she said, and he began to heal.

“But finding that kind of help for first responders is very challenging,” she said, and resources are prohibitively expensive.

“With the right proactive steps and resources, we will allow the first responders who need this help to get it,” Pickle said.

The bill would create a grant program through which first responder agencies could issue a request for proposals to either expand or begin programs for mental health support. The money could be used for assessment programs, expanding or beginning peer support programs and treatment programs, or to pay for treatment for smaller agencies.

The bill would require the state to provide one-time funding from the general fund so that the program’s success could be evaluated next year, Kwan said. Should the bill pass, future reports would be created for legislators to review that would include metrics about how many first responders were helped by it, the details of each project, and what program administrators learned.

“There is a definite need for mental health services improvement for all first responders since — and especially due to — COVID and the stresses we see there,” Hilton said, calling an expansion of mental and behavioral health resources “the only thing that will help” with the issue.

Taryn Hiatt, area director for the Utah Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said research has highlighted the connection between post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide for first responders. More are lost to suicide than in the line of duty, she noted.

“We need to do better of getting rid of that stigma that still exists that as a first responder we be quiet about our mental health struggles, and we just suck it up,” Hiatt said.

Karson Eilers, legislative analyst with the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said the bill could make a difference for smaller agencies without as many resources as larger agencies.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, questioned which level of government should be responsible for the expense of mental health resources — local governments and agencies, or the state.

Dave Spatafore, speaking on behalf of the Utah Fire Chiefs Association and other first responder advocacy groups, said the ultimate cost ideally should be born by agencies — but many can’t.

“So even though this bill does not call for financial assistance by the agencies to provide the treatment, the medical insurance they pay, the salaries they pay — there is a significant cost that is born by those local agencies,” Spatafore said.

The state is better equipped to help now, especially for smaller agencies, he said.

The bill received a favorable recommendation from the committee and will move to the full House for consideration.

The Utah Department of Health offers suicide prevention help at utahsuicideprevention.org/suicide-prevention-basics. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Help is also available through the SafeUT app.