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November 18, 2021

Biden Signs First-Responder Mental Health Support Legislation into law

Credit: Maryland Matters, Hannah Gaskill

President Joseph R. Biden signed legislation into law Monday that intends to bolster mental health supports for federal first responders through clearer confidentiality standards in peer counseling programs.

“This is a worthy victory in the fight to end the stigma surrounding mental health,” Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), the U.S. House sponsor of the ​​Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support (COPS) Counseling Act, said in a statement Thursday. “The COPS Counseling Act ensures that every first responder has a safe space to deal with the stress and pressure of their jobs.”

The legislation passed out of the U.S. Senate unanimously in June, and out of the House of Representatives on a vote of 424-3 late last month.

Trone’s legislation was written in honor of Montgomery County police officer Thomas “T.J.” Bomba, who committed suicide in 2019.

Following Bomba’s death, Trone held a roundtable discussion to address providing support for first-responders in the throes of mental health crises.

“Tragically,” Trone said, “Officer Bomba’s story is not unique.”

Peer support counselors are law enforcement officers and other first-responders who have been trained to provide emotional and moral support to fellow officers who have experienced trauma in the field.

Under the bill, federal peer support specialists are prohibited from disclosing the contents of a peer support session to a third party unless the disclosing officer directly threatens to commit suicide, indicates that they may physically harm someone, have admitted to participating in criminal conduct or have expressed knowledge of abuse or neglect of children or the elderly.

Before beginning a peer counseling session, trained peer counselors are to notify participants, in writing, of their rights and of exceptions to confidentiality.

The bill aims to speed adoption of similar policies at the state and local levels by requiring the Department of Justice to establish best practices.

“Our first responders experience more trauma in one week than the average person does in a lifetime,” said Trone. “We must do right by our first responders and the legacy of Officer Bomba. This bill will do just that.”