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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

145 N Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20530

March 2023 | Volume 16 | Issue 3

Field Notes from the FOP Annual Officer Safety and Wellness Meeting, Nashville, Tennessee, January 30 – 31, 2023

One of the liveliest conversations in the field of law enforcement officer mental health and wellness is that of mandatory mental health visits. While many departments are implementing regular mental health visits for the good of their employees, some departments are being required to do by local legislation. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) hosted an expert panel discussion, “Annual Mental Health Visits: Vital Knowledge” at the annual FOP Officer Safety and Wellness (OSW) Wellness Summit in Nashville, Tennessee on January 30, 2023. The discussion centered around the best (and worst) ways to stand up mental health visits for law enforcement officials. While there was a wide diversity of opinions from the clinical, legal, union, and practitioner perspectives, all the panelists agreed that the benefits of regular mental health visits for law enforcement for the field. They also agreed that how the programs are set up, socialized, and carried out are critical for a program’s success.

Mental health visits must be completely de-conflicted from fitness-for-duty assessments

“It must be clear and unequivocal that there is absolutely no evaluative component to the visit,” says Dr. Lew Schlosser, Chief Psychologist for the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. “The clinician conducting the wellness visit should not provide any opinion regarding the officer’s fitness for duty; they should only provide confirmation of attendance.” The panel agreed that the term “mental health checks” should be avoided at all costs as “checks” can imply an evaluative outcome. Particularly for a new program, officers need to have complete trust in the confidentiality of mental health visits. “The most basic but most important element in an effective Wellness Visit strategy is trust,” says Dr. Thomas Coghlan of Blue Line Psychological Services. “Trust is the basis of rapport, rapport is the basis of engagement, and engagement is the basis of effect.”

The purpose of mental health visits is to normalize mental health services for law enforcement officers

When departments are instituting regularly scheduled mental health visits, it is essential that they define what is and is not involved in the visit. According to Dr. Coghlan, “Wellness visits must be nonevaluative and contain no assessment component whatsoever, must be nondiagnostic and involve no symptom checklists or other screening measure, must be nonpsychotherapeutic as this is not a therapeutic encounter, must be psychoeducational in nature, [must] provide an opportunity for question-and-answer, and must provide resources and referrals.”

Sergeant Robert Martin of the Berlin (Connecticut) Police Department, Treasurer and board member of the FOP Legal Defense Plan for the National FOP, concurs: “In an effort to remove the fear of the unknown, the officer should bring a form with them to be signed off by the provider. This would help further emphasize that these visits are geared only to the wellness and education of the employee.” Furthermore, the panelists agreed that regularly scheduled mental health visits should never be tied to critical incidents.

Confidentiality is paramount

Jurisdictions have varying levels of protections for confidentiality regarding mental health services for law enforcement personnel. Any mental health visits need to be designed to protect officer confidentiality. In addition, confidentiality must be protected within the department. “LEO leadership must yield autonomy in regard to wellness visits,” says Dr. Coghlan. “Chiefs must learn to set aside their need for draconian control of every aspect of everything. They don’t need to know what is discussed in the visit, and they shouldn’t even want to.”

Dr. Schlosser concurs: “Annual wellness visits must be confidential and for the benefit of the officer’s wellness.” If officers disclose anything to the provider, that information must have the same protection that any medical information enjoys (with the usual mandated reporting caveats). The provider should be ready to refer clients out if they request follow-on services.

The choice of professionals matters

All available measures should be taken to engage professionals with whom law enforcement officers should be comfortable. Sgt. Martin says, “The choice of doctor should be up to the officer. An officer should be able to go to someone they feel comfortable with and not feel that the doctor is an agent of their employer. A list of approved providers may be necessary to accomplish the mission.”

Dr. Coghlan concurs: “All efforts must be made to identify culturally competent, licensed mental health professionals whose work is predominantly in the intervention domain. Mental health providers who work predominantly in the assessment domain should be avoided.” Smaller jurisdictions may struggle to find a fit for their department in a limited pool of local providers, but hopefully innovations in telemedicine can provide solutions.

The panel was not unanimous as to whether mental health visits should be mandatory. “In a perfect world,” says Sgt. Martin, “the visits would be voluntary with some sort of compensation that makes them too good to resist. I know that may not be the best approach to getting full compliance, so ultimately that would not be a hill I would be willing to die upon.” However, all the panelists agreed that normalizing mental health and wellness for law enforcement officials is imperative for the evolution and good health of the field.

The COPS Office supports Officer Mental Health and Wellness efforts through its Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act grant programs.

Sarah Estill
Social Science Analyst
COPS Office

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