In the state with the second highest suicide rate in the country, for a demographic uniquely susceptible to psychological trauma, first responders say mental health resources leave something to be desired.
A bill making its way through the Wyoming Legislature aims to change that. Senate File 117, which passed the Senate and is now being considered in the House of Representatives, would offer workers’ compensation to first responders — firefighters, law enforcement officers, search and rescue personnel, and ambulance personnel — suffering from “mental injury.”
“If you’re in a first responder position,” said Stephanie Thomas, executive director of Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation, “the chance of you being affected by mental illness or in need of psychological first aid is higher than the general population.”
Research shows that heavy exposure to death, abuse, injuries and other trauma puts first responders at disproportionate risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. A recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
The risk may be even higher in Wyoming, a state that consistently reports one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.
The past two years it has ranked second. Of every 100,000 residents, more than 25 died by suicide in 2018, according to a recent report from the American Association of Suicidology. That’s just behind New Mexico and far above the nationwide rate of about 15.
Under the proposed bill, about 3,000 first responders statewide would be eligible to file for assistance, said Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. A similar measure passed in Idaho last year, and only 13 people applied for aid.
“This will provide some much needed support to those officers involved in a critical incident,” Oedekoven said. “Not all organizations have the ability to provide critical incident stress debriefing as one avenue of support.”
In Teton County, numerous agencies have joined to form the Teton Interagency Peer Support group, an effort to help first responders access support from their peers, but also from therapists who specialize in trauma. Thomas said they raise money to help with counseling payments.
But scarce financial assistance is a problem in the county, state and country. Proposed legislation in the Colorado Legislature would develop mental health support programs for search and rescue volunteers specifically.
“We just really want to make sure throughout the state that people have access to the mental health care they need,” Thomas said.
Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr has also been following the bill. He said workers’ compensation would be a welcome addition to methods of paying for mental health care, as it’s often difficult to access through insurance.
“It just gives them another area to address mental health issues,” Carr said, “so we can keep our first responders healthy.”
As it stands, Wyoming’s first responders are only eligible for workers’ compensation if their mental injury “occurs subsequent to or simultaneously with” a physical injury.
The bill would require “clear and convincing evidence” of mental injury, in the form of a diagnosis from a licensed psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.
After passing the Senate by a 24-6 vote, the bill is awaiting review in the other chamber. A House committee added an amendment that would require first responders to receive treatment within 36 months of their diagnosis.
— Johanna Love contributed to this report.
This article has been updated to correct Stephanie Thomas' title. She is the executive director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation. —Eds.