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Home > Featured > Cortez Masto-backed mental health counseling bill moves forward in Congress

Cortez Masto-backed mental health counseling bill moves forward in Congress

By Jeri Chadwell
The western front of the United States Capitol. The Neoclassical style building is located in Washington, D.C., on top of Capitol Hill at the east end of the National Mall. The Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Public domain image.

Nevada U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto’s legislation seeking to expand peer-to-peer counseling within law enforcement agencies will be headed to the full Senate for a vote following its passage from committee.

The Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support (COPS) Counseling Act was sponsored by the Nevada Democrat but received bipartisan support when Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley signed on as a co-sponsor.

The legislation urges the adoption of law enforcement peer-to-peer counseling programs. It would also guarantee that information shared through these programs is kept confidential.

The bill’s particulars are modeled after Nevada’s confidentiality laws and a peer-to-peer counseling program started by the Reno Police Department several years ago.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto

“Our law enforcement officers stand up and protect our communities every day, and we need to make sure they have access to quality mental health counseling to deal with the stress and trauma associated with their service,” Cortez Masto said in a statement.

Peer-to-peer counseling in law enforcement has been practiced for more than half a century, but a recent survey of law enforcement officers by the Fraternal Order of Police and NBC New York revealed that, while 73% of respondents found peer support programs to be a helpful mental health resource, confidentiality concerns prevent many law enforcement officers from accessing them.

The bill has the endorsement of police organizations, including the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, Blue HELP, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National Association of Police Organizations and the International Union of Police Associations.

Cortez Masto told This Is Reno the COPS Act resulted from legislation she successfully passed into law to track law enforcement suicides following a roundtable with Nevada sheriffs and police chiefs. Recent studies have indicated that law enforcement officers are more likely to die of suicide than in the line of duty.

“I was able to pass the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act,” she said. “That was signed by President Trump. But, during that conversation, I learned about what Reno PD was doing with peer-to-peer counseling… And, so, that really informed the work I did at a federal level—and I was pleased to be able to get one of my Republican colleagues, Senator Grassley, to join me on this legislation that’s crucial.”

Cortez Masto said the confidentiality provisions contained within the legislation are important because of the “stigma that is quite often associated with mental health services.”

“Many people don’t want to come forward because of that stigma,” she said. “So, it was important to ensure that as we develop these peer-to-peer programs, which seem to be really effective, that we incorporate into that the privacy piece, that confidentiality piece for somebody who is seeking services.”

Brandon Cassinelli, who serves as RPD’s embedded resource officer for its peer support team, said the legislation is “openly supportive of private matters.”

“It’s OK to have struggles…Just don’t let it fester. Don’t let it eat away at you without engaging with a peer who’s trained, who has your confidence at heart…”

Cassinelli, whose master’s degree is in marriage and family therapy, facilitates RPD’s peer-to-peer program, which pairs department employees with coworkers they can speak to about personal and job-stress-related issues.

The program focuses on pairing employees in departments ranging from dispatch to patrol to senior roles with colleagues with whom they can speak. In 2019, Cassinelli told the Reno News & Review that the goal was to have a “good spread, demographic-wise—because somebody at your tenure you might feel more normalized speaking with, or your age group or gender. It may go along a whole bunch of lines, as far as trust goes.”

According to Cassinelli, peer-to-peer support is normalizing discussions about mental health issues among their ranks. He has also expressed a belief that culture change surrounding mental health among law enforcement officers is happening outside of RPD, too.

“At least in the valley, I know it’s changing,” Cassinelli said in 2019. “I can speak directly to that. Sheriff Balaam and Chief [Jason] Soto are very vocal about wanting to take care of their people, so that their people are able to take care of other people and take care of the community they’re in.”

Cassinelli said Cortez Masto’s COPS Act would help to further destigmatize the experience of seeking mental health issues for officers across the nation.

“We’re now saying, ‘It’s OK to have struggles. You have struggles at work. It’s a stressful experience. Just don’t let it fester. Don’t let it eat away at you without engaging with a peer who’s trained, who has your confidence at heart and who is going to try to refer you to the proper resource and place you can get help,’” he said. 

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