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‘Crisis’ in first responders’ mental health gets legislative airing

By Mark Shenefelt - Special to the Daily Herald | Oct 21, 2021

BENJAMIN ZACK Standard-Examiner

Ogden City Police Chief Randy Watt discusses his first year as chief in his office on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. (Benjamin Zack, Special to the Daily Herald)

Retired Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt urged state legislators Wednesday to address what he and others described as a mental health crisis that is ravaging many of Utah’s first responders.

Watt said a mental health program created by a South Ogden company identified 78 “red flag” cases among Ogden’s police and firefighters. “Suicides, broken marriages, failed families,” he said. Before, he said, “We hadn’t done very much of a job at all to deal with those things.”

Ogden contracted with Previdence Corp. to provide a screening and treatment program for personnel afflicted by PTSI, post-traumatic stress injury. Of an initial group of 35 or so volunteers, 17 graded out as high risk, Watt said. One officer, he said, disclosed that he “had a gun in his mouth twice in the week before the assessment.” The city later made the program mandatory, and the first general assessment turned up the red flag cases.

Watt said he checked with city leadership before the meeting and was told there are no red flag cases now.

Previdence deploys social work teams, vetted beforehand for those who can deal with the traumas experienced by officers and fire crews. CEO Mark Kendell and Kent Allen, founder and clinical director, explained their program to lawmakers during the meeting of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.

Allen said data gathered by the company from its first-responder programs in various states shows the vulnerability of personnel to “adrenaline events” such as traffic fatalities, suicides and sexual abuse. A police officer sees seven a month, a firefighter up to seven a shift, Allen said, adding that one firefighter told him, “I stood over three dead bodies today. How does that sound?'”

Watt, also a retired Army National Guard colonel, said he saw parallels in mental health trauma in soldiers and police. “In my own life, I have struggled greatly with PTSD and other issues,” he said, adding that once he received treatment he better understood what was at stake.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, backed the program and said it punctuated the need for more mental health treatment in general.

“I think there is a crisis coming for our police officers; in fact, it’s already here,” Riebe said. “I don’t want a society without police and teachers, and that’s what we’re getting.”

Watt responded, “We’re really in a crisis in the next five to 10 years” because the cohort of potential officers coming of age “have been convinced by the narrative that it’s not an honorable profession. We’ll really be in a crisis as a society.”

Allen said it would take 650 therapists to adequately provide services for all Utah first responders.

The committee voted to develop a bill for the Legislature’s 2022 general session to support first responder mental health programs and provide funds for them.

The panel also heard from Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Salt Lake City, who is supporting legislation to provide social workers for assignment in police departments to help work with local offenders who need mental health treatment.


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