ST. GEORGE — First responders train long hours each year to stay prepared for almost any situation, much of which is centered around physical safety and job efficiency, without addressing adverse mental health impacts many first responders experience.

L-R: Rep. Ryan D. Wilcox, R-Ogden, Sen. Don L. Ipson, R-St. George | Profile photos courtesy Utah Legislature, St. George News

A bill that has moved from Utah’s House to the Senate will expand mental health services to all responders and their families across the Beehive State.

HB67, dubbed the First Responder Mental Health Services Grant, would expand eligibility for the program as well as the number of institutions at which a recipient may use a grant under the program. In addition, it would change the way program amounts are computed.

Sponsored by Rep. Ryan Wilcox and Sen. Don Ipson, the bill will amend HB23, which passed in 2022 and provided $5 million to emergency agencies for access to mental health resources for all first responders and their families as part of a program to create mental health infrastructure.

During a House floor hearing held on Jan. 18, Wilcox said the bill is designed to clarify several elements in the mental health scholarship program since problems arose during implementation. He said the bill needed to be clarified and the period to apply for a grant to be expanded to enable those eligible enough time to utilize the program. The scholarship for each applicant is $6,000 per year.

“So we had a lot of first responders that wanted to sign up for the scholarship program but weren’t able to,” Wilcox said, adding that now, they will have an open window to apply for such a grant.

Emergency personnel respond to a fatal crash involving a pedestrian at the intersection of Bluff Street and West 500 North in St. George, Utah, Nov. 1, 2023 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Those who serve on the front lines during emergencies play a vital role in responding to disasters. Enduring hazardous conditions, traumatic events and long hours on the job — with little time to recover between calls — are routine. In fact, nearly 70% of first responders reported not having enough time to recover in between the traumatic events they experience, according to a study conducted by Utah State University.

Efforts geared towards the expansion of services and eligibility are supported by research, including one study that said nearly one-third of first responders develop mental health conditions. Among others, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were reported, which is higher than the 20% of the general population that is at risk, according to a study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

The study also found that firefighters were reported to have a higher rate of attempted suicide or suicide ideation than the general population. Estimates also suggest that 125-300 police officers commit suicide each year — results that researchers described as “staggering,” the study noted.

HB67 passed the House unanimously last week and is currently under review by the Senate Committee with a favorable recommendation by the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.

On Wednesday, the bill passed the first reading by a unanimous vote and is now calendared for a second reading. The bill has no fiscal impact, since the original bill provided for $5 million in funds earmarked to support the program.

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