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East Central Fire Territory Engine 41 sits halfway outside Base 40 in New Haven, Indiana, on a bright, sunny day.

By Ashlyn Myers

TheStatehouseFile.com

May 17, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS—”You can’t deal with that 24/7 without having some level of output.”

In his own words, that’s why Sen. Scott Baldwin, R-Noblesville, a retired Indianapolis police officer, has been demanding change for mental health services in the first responder community.

He said it was a no-brainer when deciding to sponsor HEA 1321, which calls for the Law Enforcement Training Board to create educational standards to teach police officers about maintaining their mental health and wellness. The bill also includes firefighters and EMTs, requiring full-time workers to receive mental health training.

Authored by Rep. Victoria Garcia Wilburn, D-Fishers, the bill was created in homage to her husband, another police officer.

Why are first responders vulnerable to mental health issues? Baldwin says it’s because they see more than “what normal people can handle.” According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, a philanthropic research organization, first responders are five times more likely to experience depression or post traumatic stress disorder. 

According to a U.S. Department of Health’s study, firefighters are also more likely to attempt suicide than the general public, and 125-300 police officers commit suicide every year as of 2022.

Jim Noll, division chief of safety and fire training for East Central Fire Territory in Fort Wayne, said first responders “take home” so much added trauma because they help people on some of the worst days of their lives.

Noll also said he’s seen a lack of mental health support during his 35 years in the fire service because of “ignorance” in first responder leadership roles. He said that often people get put into leadership roles without proper behavioral health training, so they end up prioritizing technological advances like new fire trucks instead of the wellness of their employees.

How to maintain one’s wellness? Noll said he teaches his firefighters to exercise, eat right and make time away from the fire service.

“You work out, you turn the pager off. You turn this stuff off, and you walk away for a while. Take a vacation, you know, and your mind just gotta take a break from it all. So the more often you can do that, the better off you are,” he said.

More than this, Noll said he tries to teach more awareness around mental health so that firefighters understand the source of their feelings. As far as what specific kind of training Noll wants to see the state offer, he said he just wants first responders to “get the help they deserve.”

Noll said he wanted to ensure firefighters will see support from the bill and not be punished for the trauma and mental health issues they may be experiencing.

There’s also a universal stereotype in the first responder community that firefighters, police officers and EMTs can handle just about anything, but Baldwin said putting them on this sort of pedestal is dangerous.

Baldwin said that years ago if a police officer came forward about struggling with mental health issues, they’d end up fired for it. With this sort of old-fashioned thinking, Baldwin said it’s no surprise so many first responders fail to ask for help.

“I just hope forward movement occurs,” Baldwin said. “I hope it doesn’t turn into more regulation and difficulty for police officers.”

Even those looking from the outside see the need for change.

Karie Phelps, a hairdresser and advocate of mental health for first responders, saw her husband, Jeff, struggle to find his diagnosis for PTSD after working as a police officer.

Phelps said that she and her husband spent months talking with doctors just to get him the help he needed. After realizing how universal this experience can be in the first responder community, Phelps took action.

Three years ago, Phelps and two other police wives started their Behind Thin Lines Foundation to raise money for first responder families to receive mental health support.

They have held two “Battle of the Badges” fundraising events, where firefighters and police officers from the Fishers area come together to play softball and raise funds.

Phelps actually met Garcia Wilburn at last year’s softball event, where they had a conversation about what the state could do to support first responders. Months later, Phelps received notice that HEA 1321 was making its rounds in the Statehouse, and Garcia Wilburn asked for Phelps’ support.

Phelps testified on the bill. HEA 1321 ultimately passed the House and Senate unanimously.

What now? Garcia Wilburn says that from her perspective, the passage of the bill is a bright sign for the future.

“I just want to see more officers stay well, I want to see more firefighters admit that they’re struggling, and I want more EMTs to say it’s OK to get help,” Garcia Wilburn said. “We’re really trying to address the stigma and the culture of receiving mental health care while also being a public servant, and it’s a narrative that needs to be changed. I’m excited that this gets the ball moving forward.”

Ashlyn Myers is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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