Op-Ed: First Responder Mental Wellness and Stress Management Act

This week in the Pennsylvania Senate, we addressed several law enforcement related pieces of legislation in response to calls for police reform.  Two of the bills address use of force – banning chokeholds and requiring recordkeeping and reporting of uses of force by law enforcement. Another bill requires mental health evaluations for law enforcement officers, and yet another creates a database, which will provide law enforcement agencies a tool to vet prospective officers by being able to see the reasons for their separation of service from previous law enforcement agencies. 

While two of those bills quickly achieved a final vote in the Senate, another important piece of legislation came out of Committee that would provide police officers and other first responders with the necessary support for the mental stressors of their job.

House Bill 1459, sponsored by Representatives Schlossberg and Farry, is a bipartisan piece of legislation that would create the First Responder Mental Wellness and Stress Management Act with three key components.  First, it would establish a confidential hotline within the Pennsylvania Department of Health for first responders to call and would require the Department to issue guidelines to assist first responders who are dealing with post-traumatic stress injuries or traumatic brain injuries as a result of their employment.  Additionally, the Department would be required to establish Peer-to-Peer and Critical Incident Stress Management programs for first responders, which encompasses 911 operators, coroners, corrections officers, EMS responders, firefighters, and peace officers.

This legislation, based on the recommendation of the SR 6 Fire & Emergency Services Commission, is so important for our first responders.  As a former U.S. Marshal, I am cognizant of the fact that our first responders are exposed to things in their line of work that no person should ever have to see. In turn, they need support for processing what they saw and how it has affected them.

Mental health must be a priority in the work we are doing in Harrisburg. If you have read my other op-eds, you know this is a recurring theme for me – particularly with respect to the prevalence of Veteran suicide, the potential for increased suicides and drug overdose deaths due to isolation requirements of COVID-19, and the need to assist our younger generation in identifying mental health issues early and getting them any needed assistance.

The same is true for our law enforcement officers and other first responders. While I am of the mindset that police brutality is not a common occurrence, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that police officers – and their fellow first responders – do carry the weight of some of their experiences with them.  And as with many people, that weight can add up and manifest in undesirable ways – anger, alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence, depression, suicide, and even unwanted behavior on the job.

You have heard it time and again that the majority of police officers are excellent community stewards who when faced with a dangerous scenario are focused on deescalating the situation, apprehending the offender(s), protecting bystanders, and quite frankly, staying alive so they can go home to their families. In these heightened occurrences, use of force may be necessary. That is simply part of the job. That is why people call 911 – for the trained officers to come in and handle the scary and dangerous situations.

But as the calls for police reforms continue, let’s not just focus on taking things away from our law enforcement community – funding, equipment, methods for addressing threatening individuals – let’s also focus on what they need – mental health resources so they can be at the top of their game and in the best frame of mind when called to duty.

That is why as the Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee I convened a meeting of the Committee this week to consider HB 1459. The bill, which is just one aspect of how we can assist our first responders, was reported out unanimously and is now before the full Senate for consideration.

Senator Mike Regan represents Pennsylvania’s 31st Senatorial District covering parts of Cumberland and York Counties.

 

CONTACT: Bruce McLanahan, bmclanahan@pasen.gov