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November 20, 2021

New law touted as way to improve police officers’ access to mental health care

Credit: Herald-Mail Media

Local law enforcement leaders said a bill drafted by a Maryland congressman and signed into law by President Joe Biden this week will help to end the “stigma” that keeps officers from seeking mental health care. 

The Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support (COPS) Counseling Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. David Trone, D-6th, creates more peer counseling programs and clear standards of confidentiality, according to a news release from Trone’s office.

“Police Officers are subject to witnessing horrific crime scenes and death and suffer mental stress as a result,” Washington County Sheriff Doug Mullendore said in a subsequent release from Trone’s office. “Therefore, they should be entitled to receive peer-to-peer services without having to report it to their agency or governmental body.”

The COPS Counseling Act was written after the suicide of Montgomery County Police Officer Thomas “T.J.” Bomba in 2019. Following his death, Trone held a roundtable on improving mental health care for first responders to discuss how he could provide support.

The bill was signed one month after the second anniversary of Bomba’s death.

A survey by the Fraternal Order of Police showed that 73% of surveyed officers viewed peer support as the most helpful behavioral and mental health resource offered by departments, according to information provided by Trone’s office.

Those same officers surveyed identified stigma associated with mental health support, and the idea that the public could potentially access sensitive personal information, as the major barriers to using peer support groups.

The new law provides “legislative privacy protections for officers seeking assistance from peer crisis lines and other peer support programs.”

Hagerstown Police Chief Paul Kifer said the act “acknowledges the stigma that first responders face related to mental health services.”

“In our line of work, we experience so much trauma and deal with horrific moments in our society from fatal traffic accidents, to child abuse cases, to homicides,” Kifer said in the news release. “It is not hard to imagine why law enforcement personnel deal with suicidal thoughts given the stress of the job, but many of us don’t seek the help we need. Accessing mental health services is vital to our long term health and wellness and this legislation will address this need.”Get the Storm Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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Public safety officers might view peer support as the most helpful mental health resource but not take advantage of it due to confidentiality concerns. The COPS Counseling Act improves confidentiality measures in peer support programs, Trone’s office said.

“The COPS Counseling Act is long overdue. When our officers experience more trauma in one week than the average person does in a lifetime, it becomes critical that our officers regain trust in peer support programs,” Trone said in the release. “… I’m glad our brave first responders in Washington County will finally get the support they needed all along.”