New federal legislation provides more mental health resources to first responders

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 5:28 PM EST
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HENRICO, Va. (WWBT) - For police and other first responders, an average day on the job can be a taxing and emotional journey, but a new federal law is aimed at helping those who help us.

Last week, President Joe Biden signed the Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support Counseling Act, or the COPS Counseling Act, to provide more mental health resources to first responders.

The bill requires the Department of Justice to set forth requirements related to peer support counseling programs.

A peer support counseling program is a program provided by a law enforcement agency that gives counseling services from a peer support specialist to a law enforcement officer of the agency, something the Henrico County Police Division has already been on top of.

Henrico is just a handful of other police departments accredited under the Virginia Department of Health’s Critical Incident Stress Management and Peer Support Team. The main objective is to help first responders who never ask for help.

“What we’re trying to do is we’re not trying to become counselors, but the main objective is just to give resources to officers to reach out to,” Lt. Christopher Kovach, who helps oversee the program with Henrico Police, said. “Catching those people who might be following through the cracks, who may not feel comfortable going to a professional mental health expert.”

Kovach says the way the program works is a police officer can be recommended to the peer support team after being involved in a critical incident, like a car crash or violent crime. He says these are calls that typically make an impact on an officer’s mental health.

According to a study, law enforcement officers are 54 percent more likely to commit suicide than the average American.

“A person in their life may have suffered one and a half to two critical incidences in a lifetime; your average 20-year officer will go to well over 800,” Kovach said.

The Peer Support Team is not just limited to police officers but is for all first responders in the county, including those who take the initial call for help at the dispatch center.

“We’ll also send someone to your communications office because a lot of times jurisdictions forget that their 911 operators are the first responders, and just hearing something on the phone can be just as traumatic, if not more than seeing it in person,” Kovach said.

President Biden also signed the Protecting America’s First Responders Act of 2021, which is designed to offer improved access to benefits for those disabled in the line of duty.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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