State-funded mental health assistance could be coming for Utah’s first responders and families

Proposed legislation would earmark $5 million to help police and fire agencies provide mental health resources to its employees.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police on the scene of a shooting at the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office in South Salt Lake on Saturday, April 10, 2021.

When Weber County Sheriff Lt. Cortney Ryan left the Ogden house where a shootout erupted one January night nine years ago, he felt it was a miracle that he came out unscathed.

One police officer died in the shooting. Five others were injured. But he got out.

“I didn’t receive any physical injuries that night,” Ryan told lawmakers on Wednesday. “But I did receive a lot of mental injury. And I didn’t know how to take care of those things.”

Ryan and other law enforcement officials on Wednesday voiced their support for proposed legislation that would provide $5 million in mental health assistance for first responders.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, who presented the bill to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee, said the bill would require all first responder agencies to provide confidential mental health resources for its employees and their families. That would include police officers, firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers and others.

Mental health providers who contract with an agency would be required to provide periodic screenings, as well as health assessments for those personnel who were involved in a “critical incident” within 12 hours.

The $5 million would be used for grants to help agencies cover the costs of those resources.

Wilcox emphasized that the funding would not just help current employees, but their spouses and children. It would also be a benefit for retired first responders.

“It reflects the reality that families, by and large, pay the price,” Wilcox said, as his voice broke with emotion.

Ryan said it took a long time to cope with post traumatic stress disorder after that 2012 shooting. But his wife, he said, still struggles. She hears sirens and worries that he’s been involved in another shooting, though his job is more administrative these days.

“It opens up that wound every time,” he said.

Retired Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt also applauded that the funding could be used for dispatchers and retirees.

“As a retiree, I can tell you that I’ve had to visit with friends long retired who have not overcome the effects and impacts of the job,” he said.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Midvale, asked Wilcox if whether the bill — and funding — would be enough.

“It’s a good, solid first step,” Wilcox replied.

The committee endorsed the bill, which will give it a better chance of becoming law in the general session early next year.