United States

New Law Protects Privacy of First Responders Seeking Mental Health Treatment

Massachusetts police officers and firefighters say a new bill signed into law Wednesday will allow them to ask for help and will save lives.

Surrounded by first responders and lawmakers, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the bill allowing first responders to seek guidance from their peers confidentially. They say that one-on-one conversation with someone who has also been through similar experiences will help them cope with the traumatic events experienced in the line of duty.

They say they can now confide without fear the conversation will be used against them on the job.

"Providing law enforcement officers with the ability to confidentially seek guidance from their peers will help them cope with the events they experience in the line of duty," said Baker. "We are thankful for the Legislature and law enforcement for their advocacy on this bill to increase support for services and reduce stigma around mental health issues. I am glad people saw it through and got it done."

The bill was stalled for years, so the NBC10 Boston Investigators started asking questions and telling the stories of first responders in need. Those stories included the night that Boston Police Sgt. Brian Fleming recalled nearly took his own life. It was his first time the now-retired officer and peer support counselor talked about what happened.

"I took a gun out, put it to my head," Fleming said. "I wanted to die."

Worcester firefighters, sitting around the station kitchen table, talked for the first time about fighting the deadly Cold Storage Warehouse fire in 1999. Six fellow firefighters died during the fire, and at that time, the stigma prevented many from asking for help. Worcester has lost several firefighters since, including Christopher Roy last month.

"Coming from the Worcester area, where we have seen so many tragedies, this bill couldn't be more timely," said Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Mike Moore at the signing.

Another chief, Frank Frederickson of the Yarmouth Police Department, spoke to NBC10 Boston in the days following the murder of one of his officers, Sgt. Sean Gannon, about what it was like for the other officers on scene that day.

"We know this is going to hard for them," he said. "We will do what we need to do to help them through."

During the last year, chiefs and unions, who are often at odds, worked together to get the new law passed.

"This bill being signed by the governor takes down a barrier that was preventing our members from getting the help they need when they deal with tragedies in the community," said Peabody Chief Tom Griffin.

MassCOP, the state's largest union representing almost 5,000 officers, has been supportive of the bill.

"Today means our state government has taken PTSD stress-related incidents seriously for our first responders in the commonwealth," said MassCOP President Scott Hovsepian during the signing event.

Republican State Rep. Tim Whelan, also a retired Massachusetts State Police trooper with 21 years on the road, predicted that "This bill is going to save lives, save marriages, and this bill is going to save families."

BLUE Help, a non-profit organization in Worcester, tracks police officer suicides. In 2018, 160 police officers died by suicide in the United States. More died by suicide than in the line of duty.

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