DFL legislators explore first responder confidentiality

Content warning: the following article contains references to mental health struggles and suicide

One in four police officers considers suicide at least once during their life, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Our police officers and first responders witness tragic events on a daily basis while doing their jobs to protect the wellbeing of people in our state. Due to fear of losing their jobs and repercussions, many officers feel unsafe revealing their traumas. Currently, peer support services provided to first responders are not protected by confidentiality, causing first responders to forego critical discussions about their wellbeing. Legislation to protect confidentiality during peer support activities would ensure our first responders are mentally taken care of during their work and healthier overall.

The Guaranteeing Confidentiality for First Responders in Peer Support Activities bill would protect the privacy of first responders in discussions about their mental health with others who have experienced similar situations. The protection would cover any private information revealed in a peer group setting to members or the peer counselor during meetings unless explicit permission is given. Officers and first responders feel apprehensive about revealing their mental health status because of others who have been put on unpaid leave after such discussions in the past. By ensuring confidentiality, first responders will not have to fear for their job security or repercussions. The bill would encourage participation and create a safer atmosphere for the mental health of first responders. 

Additionally, this move would be beneficial to all Minnesotans as it eases shortages and creates safer communities. Police and fire departments in Greater Minnesota are experiencing difficulties retaining staff on account of burnout and mental strains. Paramedic and EMT shortages make rural areas less safe by understaffing ambulances and relying on volunteers during times of critical need. By implementing measures for confidential peer support, first responders will be less likely to leave their positions. Activist groups in Minnesota have expressed their support for proposals to ensure the mental wellbeing of officers and first responders, as mental health is as important for our first responders as it is for the communities they serve. 

Every day, police officers, firefighters, and other first responders are called to ensure our safety during the hardest moments of our lives. When first responders arrive at the scene, they must quickly react to the needs of the situation by putting their fears and feelings aside in order to complete their jobs. While first responders are well trained to handle the difficult parts of their role, the mental toll of experiencing traumatic events multiple times a day weighs heavily on them.

Officers and firefighters need a safe space to discuss how these difficult situations impacted them. If we want to create healthier communities, we need to have healthier first responders.