Illinois police officers, firefighters and paramedics have a new shoulder to lean on when they need help.
It’s the effort of a new law in the state.
The Frist Responders Suicide Prevention Act makes it possible for emergency service employees to confidentially get help for themselves or refer other people they work with for mental health services.
The reason the Illinois Public Pension Fund Association developed the law is because suicide has become the leading cause of death for first responders.
Blue H.E.L.P. which tracks police suicides reports so far in 2019 there’s been 124 law enforcement officers who have taken their own line.
That’s compared to the 73 police line of duty fatalities.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance records there’s been 60 suicides of firefighters and 13 among EMTs.
The U.S. Fire Administration reports there’s been 33 firefighter line of duty fatalities.
An IPPFA board member and Peoria Police Officer wrote the original bill about two years ago.
It gained more attention in the past year after several first responder suicides in the state.
IPPFA Vice President Mark Poulos said, “We need to be able to take care of our people.”
There are those calls Mark Poulos said that are indelible for first responders.
Poulos said, “They get to these accidents where it’s just a horrific scene and they put on their game face. They do what they have to do.”
But the retired Rock Island Police Officer and former Coal Valley Police Chief knows the impact doesn’t always stop at the end of a shift.
Poulos said, “Some of them take that home with them.”
He went on to say, “You’re a human being and when you see traumatic situations like that, it’s going to stay with you for a while. That’s the kind of people we draw into this service, you know, people who really care about their fellow man.”
And it doesn’t simply fade away.
Poulos said, “It is post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
That’s leading to the tragic loss of men and women who work every day to save lives and it’s an issue that hits close to the heart for Poulos.
Poulos said, “I kind of carried that with me for a while. He was a good friend, and when those things happen you just, if only. If only there was something we could have done to stop that.”
That’s why the Illinois Pubic Pension Fund Association, where Poulos serves as a board vice president, led a charge for more help and resources so first responders know they don’t have to go it alone.
Poulos said, “Allows first responders the ability to have an outlet to talk about traumatic issues.”
The purpose is to give first responders more readily available access to confidential mental health services for themselves or others.
Poulos said, “Part of it is getting them to air it out, say hey, maybe there is a problem here going on and the officer may not even know it.”
The law also focuses on creating peer support programs within departments.
Poulos said, “Been in the trenches, done the job with you.”
So first responders are not just there to save other lives but their own.
Poulos said, “Ability to talk about what we’re really feeling.”
IPPFA worked with Northern Illinois University to develop training for the peer counseling programs and to teach mental health providers.
Poulos said since they’ve started offering the training in the spring, departments are embracing the effort sending first responders to complete the training.
The new law said for agencies that don’t have a program available in house, the legislation allows for people to seek help from other mental health assistance programs.