Members of the Idaho House and Senate gather for a joint session during the State of the State Address on Monday. | Courtesy Marco Erickson
IDAHO FALLS – Rep. Rick Cheatum, R-Pocatello, is hoping to pass a bill during the legislative session that would provide state funding for first responders interested in becoming mental health specialists.
The Republican Representative for District 28, which includes all of Franklin and Power counties and a portion of Bannock County, has been working on the bill since last summer and he says it’s gotten a lot of support.
Cheatum tells EastIdahoNews.com mental health issues have resulted in a “crisis” for emergency responders in Idaho and across the U.S. Pocatello police officers and other law enforcement personnel brought this to his attention, which is what prompted the bill.
“The problem we’re having is getting first responders to meet staffing needs in local jurisdictions,” Cheatum says.
The number of people who apply to become law enforcement officers is much lower than it was 20 years ago, he says, and one reason for that has to do with the mental and emotional toll it takes.
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Often, Cheatum says, a new recruit will begin working as a police officer after completing all the necessary training only to quit a year later because they weren’t prepared to deal with it.
“The bill I’ve got would offer … early or regular retirees or active emergency responders the ability to get a mental health certification (so they can help other first responders) and encourage them to stay in the profession,” Cheatum explains.
Rick Cheatum is in his second term on the Pocatello City Council. He also serves as a state representative for District 28 A. | Courtesy Idaho GOP
Zac Bartschi, a sergeant with the Pocatello Police Department, provides additional perspective on this issue. He and Cheatum have spoken extensively on this subject.
Bartschi says the department is leading the state in having a full staff. With a capacity of 100 officers, there are currently 97 people on the force.
The department has an Employee Assistance Program, which gives officers access to a counselor and other free mental health resources. Not every police department has this available to them, he says, and he credits this as one factor contributing to employee retention.
The amount of trauma an officer will experience over the course of their career far exceeds what the average person experiences during their lifetime, he says, which makes access to quality mental health care an ongoing need.
Though mental health resources are available, Bartschi says it often isn’t adequate in giving officers the tools they need to cope.
“I know of an officer who made a mental health specialist cry when they went to a counseling session,” Bartschi says. “(Some counselors) just don’t understand what an average response (to an emergency call is like) so they want to know more (about what happened) instead of figuring out how to treat the responder.”
As a result, Bartschi says officers will sometimes end up reliving the trauma by repeating what happened to the counselor and will walk away without anything to help them.
Cheatum and Bartschi are working to change that with this new bill.
“We want more law enforcement officers who can draw from their experience to empathize with other first responders and help them cope,” says Bartschi.
Bartschi knows of a retired Pocatello police officer who is already seeking education in the mental health field. Since Cheatum started drafting the bill, several others, including Bartschi, have also expressed interest in the program.
“Pocatello alone would benefit from this, but around the state it would be a huge victory,” he says.
The bill proposes $300,000 a year be allotted for 50 applicants. Details about how it will be funded are still being worked out.
Once a draft is approved, Cheatum is planning to introduce it in committee.
He anticipates the cost being a talking point for critics as the bill advances, but Cheatum doesn’t feel it’s a huge ask when the state’s general fund totals $5.3 billion.
“It’s time we recognize the stress that police officers and firemen go through,” says Cheatum. “Those things build up (over time) … and we need to provide some help for these people.”
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