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Utah House approves $5 million to provide mental health services for first responders

Bill would also require that local agencies fund mental health services in the long run

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Kate Stockard wipes her eye while holding a photo of her late husband, Weber County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Stockard, as fallen first responders are honored on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Utah House honored friends and family members of first responders who died this last year, shortly after passing a bill to provide first responders with access to mental health services.

HB23 would give $5 million to first responder agencies and require that all first responders and their families have access to mental health resources. The money would help local agencies launch mental health programs, but the agencies would need to provide funding themselves in the long term.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said the bill is meant “really to make sure that we don’t miss anybody” who is struggling with mental health, especially first responders who face a high level of stress on the job.

Wilcox said he met with a number of police chiefs over the last year to understand the issue and craft legislation that would address it.

“I wasn’t prepared for that conversation,” he said, reflecting on the first time he sat down to talk with a police chief. “As I learned what his department had been through, and the fallout, the toll, that the service of those officers that were under his command had experienced ... we needed a statewide standard.”

Under the bill, retirees would also be covered, Wilcox said, because suicide rates jump by as much as 35% when first responders retire. Divorce rates are also as high as 75% for first responders, according to Wilcox.

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South Salt Lake firefighter EMT Trevor Bone and his wife, Kristin, hold photos of Bone’s father, Merrill Bone, a Unified Fire Authority captain, as fallen first responders are honored on the House floor at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. Capt. Bone died in the line of duty in October 2021 due to complications with COVID-19.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“That’s not OK,” he said.

Some first responders witness multiple traumatic events per shift and for many it can be hard to cope.

“These first responders are pretty tough cookies and they do some tough things,” said Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden. “And in decades past it was just expected that they dealt with it. I guess I just wanted to bring it to their attention ... so that it doesn’t carry any shame with it. It’s there, and we recognize it.”

Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, tearfully rose, and, after taking a moment to compose himself, spoke of his personal experience as a police chief in Roy.

“I almost didn’t stand up,” he said. “While I appreciate the comment about being a ‘tough cookie,’ that’s a facade. One of the first sergeants that I worked with as a brand new officer succumbed to suicide a couple years ago. ... I am ill-equipped to be handling the mental health that I myself have to go through when confronted with someone I love when they commit suicide.”

“Please keep those conversations going. Because we need all of us to make sure that those we call on our worst days are at their best, and that they’re cared for long term,” Wilcox said.

After the House unanimously approved the bill, representatives stood and welcomed the friends and family members of those who had died — including Unified Fire Authority Capt. Merrill Bone, who died from COVID-19 complications last October, University of Utah police Sergeant Kory Newbold and Naples City Police Chief Andrew Cox.

“We are committed to remembering that the preservation of our liberty and our way of life comes at a price,” read a citation lawmakers presented to the families. “That price is often paid by young men and women who selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives of the people and to uphold peace and justice in our communities.”

“We mourn with you,” Wilcox said. “We recognize that these loved ones are not the first, and they’re not the last. That while the oath that we swear to the Constitution typically doesn’t come at the risk of our lives, yours often does.”

“We appreciate your sacrifice, your service and your example,” said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. “I’ve been here a number of years and every year we do this, and we hope we don’t have to do this again. We truly appreciate the great work that you’ve done for our state and know that we are doing what we can to support you.”

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Firefighters are seated in the gallery while HB23 is discussed in the House at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. The bill would create a grant program for mental health resources for first responders.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The bill would cover law enforcement officers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, firefighters, dispatchers, correctional officers, CSI technicians, and search and rescue workers. Wilcox said the bill covers rescue workers who work as volunteers, because “they’re the same people we call on when there’s an emergency, when there’s no one else to call.”

It would require that all agencies provide first responders and their families with access to an outpatient mental health therapist or peer support services. Extending services to family members was a key part of the legislation, said retired Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt, because they share in the stress and anxiety that comes with the job.

“This started a number of years ago when I was chief of police, we were recognizing significantly increased stress among our officers, but more importantly, among their families,” he said during a press conference Thursday. “We’re at a point where we believe that this bill ... will make a significant dent in improving retention of everyone, not just police officers. You want to talk about stress? You want to talk about retention? You talk about an officer’s family, and the critical need that (the bill) fills there to remove some of that stress.”

“The other thing that this bill does that I think is equally important, is it redefines who are our team members,” Wilson said. “We spent time today in the House talking about not just those that are directly the first responders but their family members. How do we get the tools we need to our first responders and their family members to deal with the heavy burdens that sometimes this work places on them?”

Many large law enforcement and fire departments already have mental health programs for their staff, so the legislation is aimed specifically at smaller agencies with fewer resources.

Wilcox initially asked for $10 million, but said legislative leadership supported the $5 million in the final bill. He said the state could consider more funding in the future.

The bill was recommended unanimously by the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Monday and will be transmitted to the Senate for consideration.

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Family members of fallen first responders are honored in the House chamber after the passage of HB23 during the 2022 legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. The bill would create a grant program for mental health responders for first responders.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News