Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
FILE - Sen. David Thatcher speaks during a committee hearing at the State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Senate voted Tuesday to create a new kind of first responder who specializes in mental health and suicide prevention.

SB31, the Utah Mobile Crisis Outreach Team Act, passed 26-3 in the Senate and now moves to the House for consideration.

"I'm told by Salt Lake City that more than 1 in 6 calls for a first responder is in regards to a mental health or behavior health crisis," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, told his Senate colleagues.

The Cache County Sheriff's Office says it's 1 in 4 there, Thatcher said, and it's the same in Sanpete County.

"Can you imagine a world where 1 in 6 to 1 in 4 emergencies were a house fire and we had no firefighters to send? Can you imagine if instead we said, 'We'll send a police officer?' That is the very world we live in for mental and behavioral health," he said.

The bill directs the state Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to create licensure for what Thatcher called "the equivalent of a paramedic with the same level of training and the same level of expertise specifically to respond to mental health and behavioral health crisis and suicide prevention."

Talking to reporters, Thatcher said that many people can be saved if there is intervention in the first 15 minutes after they make the decision to commit suicide. He also talked about how sometimes people are angry with people who commit suicide, thinking of it as a selfish act.

"You have to understand that sometimes it's not a decision; sometimes it's not a choice. Sometimes it is an illness. Sometimes it a sickness that kills people," he said.

"You think about the culture in the state of Utah, and when you hear that you have a neighbor who has a cancer diagnosis, you bring them a casserole. You hear that a neighbor has a depression or a mental health diagnosis, and you gossip. … And until we can change that culture, until we can break through some of that stigma, there are going to be people who are afraid to ask for help."

There was some debate on the floor about whether new licensure is necessary. Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, expressed concern that new licensure is a barrier to business.

Senate Rules Chairwoman Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, called the bill "a revolutionary idea."

"This is a response to a terrible crisis we are having, not just in Utah but across the country," Henderson said.

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"We're providing a new level of service that is very much in need," she said.

Senate Minority Assistant Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, also endorsed the bill, saying that in first responder training "for so long we've separated physical health from mental health, but now we know that it needs to be comprehensive."

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, asked how Utah is going to pay for the first responders' licensing. Thatcher said such licenses would be paid for by employers, just as with paramedics.