Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber: Responding to the mental health needs of our first responders
Talking about mental health support of the strongest and most courageous people in our communities can be difficult or taboo. The men and women in blue spend much of their day interacting with people in high-stress or emotional situations. They're typically responding to the public when we're not at our best. And that's on a good day.
Those countless interactions involve decisions that can seriously impact a person's life. It takes training and strength to get through those emergency situations. It takes greater strength to work through the burdens that result. It's a quiet change when it becomes more difficult to take off the uniform and the weight of the day, when the soft voice to the children and spouses become harsh.
This topic is near and dear to me. In my small role (just a couple of years) as a former law enforcement officer, I remember things – faces, people, situations – both good and bad. But there are a few that go beyond just a memory. They get under your skin, inside you, to places you can't see but feel more deeply than you thought possible. If left undealt with, they can cause mental and emotional scarring that are with us for a lifetime.
In an effort to provide more mental and behavioral health assistance to our first responders, I wanted the first bill of the legislative session to tackle this issue. My proposal, House Bill 1000, was the very first bill introduced in the Washington State House of Representatives for the 2021 legislative session.
My legislation would create three pilot projects to support behavioral health improvement and suicide prevention efforts for law enforcement. Associations and agencies would be able to compete for grant funding for public information and wellness campaigns, embedded mental health professionals, peer support programs, resiliency training programs, and critical incident stress management programs.
It's important to note these pilot programs would be outside the traditional resources available to law enforcement.
I have heard – and I remember – it can be difficult for officers to seek assistance in dealing with stress or emotional or mental health issues. The stigmatism attached to this cry for help runs counter to some of the machismo expected in our profession.
We also don't want some sort of “mark” on an officer's record for seeking ways to cope with stress. Law enforcement are under a public microscope like never before. And we certainly need tools to weed out the bad ones. But more than that, we need tools to keep the good ones healthy, active, and engaged with the public!
If my legislation leads to just one officer seeking assistance to deal with on-the-job stresses who might otherwise pass at this opportunity, I will consider it a success.
This proposal is another step in responding to the mental and behavioral health needs of our first responders. Last session, I was able to pass legislation creating peer to peer critical incident stress management for first responders on both sides of the state.
As we break down the stigmatism and the negative connotations of first responders seeking help, we need to be there for them with new tools and new ways of thinking. We need them home safe after each shift. And we need them healthy.
(Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, is a former law enforcement officer and serves as the House Republican Floor Leader.)