Utah Senate health committee advances bills expanding scope of mental health support for first responders


Boram Kim


The Utah Senate Health and Human Services Standing Committee unanimously passed House Bills 59 and 278 with favorable recommendations on Wednesday. 


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HB 59 is an amendment to a law that was passed last year that requires first responder agencies in Utah to provide mental health services for first responders, both active and retired, and their family members. 

HB 59 modifies the provision of those services to be regular and ongoing and expands them to include spouses of retired first responders and related officials, such as victim advocates and forensic interviewers. 

Julie Higdon, a retired public safety dispatcher and spouse of an active police officer, testified before the committee advocating on behalf of the bill. 

“Thank goodness [my husband] was still employed so we have the benefit of insurance,” Higdon said, speaking to the trauma her husband endured on the job. “I no longer have that as a retiree. When he retires, the same will apply. If this bill gets through, and we hope it will, it gives him the opportunity for healing, for all of us.”

HB 278 would create the First Responder Mental Health Services Grant Program administered by the Utah Board of Higher Education to assist first-response retirees with becoming licensed mental health therapists specifically designed to serve first responders. 

“Right now the Wellness Foundation is struggling with vetting and locating counselors and therapists that understand our profession,” testified Scott Stevenson, executive director for the Utah Fraternal Order of Police. “We’ve had a couple of situations that were unpleasant for officers, and there is a negative stigma, still to this day, for those who seek counseling. We’re trying to get rid of that. And to encourage those officers to come over and get the help that they need. We think it’s going to be to the benefit of our community that those who have walked in their shoes cross over into the therapists’ realm.”

Jeffrey Denning, a retired police officer who established First Responders First, a Utah-based mental health and wellness company that specializes in working with first responders, said there is a great need for mental health support among this group. 

Denning, who is studying to become a licensed clinical mental health counselor, says the support and the conversations around mental health have come a long way since the early days of his career in law enforcement. He hopes the paradigm shift within the nation will continue to get people help. 

“Peer support is really a great, key [mental health service],” Denning told State of Reform. “It normalizes the way you feel. ‘Hey, I’m not feeling the same.’ So you talk to somebody else who’s a colleague or a co-worker. They might be feeling the same way. It normalizes [mental health issues], it helps you feel not alone. It allows that connectedness and then peer support can also offer those resources. The resources are really pivotal, and they’re keen, and some of those resources include mental health counseling and therapy.”

Based on Denning’s research, 85% of emergency first responders experience critical incident stress symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, short-term memory loss, loss of interest in work and activities, loss of motivation, absenteeism, and physical health problems. 

High levels of stress lead first responders to experience three times the number of health problems, three times the occurrence of domestic violence, and five times higher rates of alcoholism than the average person. First responders are 10 times more likely to suffer from depression, which results in a 75% loss in work productivity and can lead to suicide. 

Unfortunately, the trauma first responders experience as part of their jobs also affects their family members, according to Denning. 

“[Trauma] affects your mind, your health, your body because the body keeps score, but it also affects home life,” Denning said. “It affects our [spouses] and our children. I’ve read studies where the same amount of post-traumatic stress is in the spouse who’s not a first responder. Why? Because it’s residual. It comes home. And so those are some challenges that thankfully we here in Utah [are] starting to address, which is great.”