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Why do cops avoid counseling? Eight myths about law enforcement officers and mental health treatment

By Jessika Redman January 23, 2018

Most clinicians who work with law enforcement officers will tell you that the experience can be a little different. Sometimes, it seems to incorporate elements of a spy thriller. First, the call from the unknown number. Then, the interrogation from the unidentified caller, asking about your experience with cops, your ability to keep secrets and if you are in any way affiliated with the department. James Bond must be on the other end of the phone.

Let’s start by exploring the impacts that a career in law enforcement can have on officers. Law enforcement officers are a special population (like military and paramilitary personnel and other first responders) who experience coexisting medical and behavioral health issues with links to job-related stressors. According to a landmark study published by researcher John Violanti with the University at Buffalo in 2012, various factors contribute to the very serious physical and mental health concerns experienced by many law enforcement officers. These factors include:

  • Shift work
  • Long hours
  • Unpredictable schedules
  • Exposure to critical incidents
  • Being the frequent focus of public attention and criticism
  • Various physical demands
  • High rates of on-the-job injuries

The major concerns identified in Violanti’s study are high blood pressure, insomnia, heart disease, diabetes, posttraumatic stress disorder, obesity, depression, anxiety, cancer, substance abuse, relational distress and suicide. This special population often presents with higher rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide than does the general public.

In the October 2010 Issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Daniel Mattos, a law enforcement veteran for more than 30 years, described the psychological impact of police work: “By the very nature of what we do as police officers, we are unavoidably exposed to a host of toxic elements that can be likened to grains of emotional sand that ever so gradually are placed on our psychological backs. As time goes on, the sand increases in volume. Without the proper tools to remove it, the weight can become unbearable. In fact, in some cases, the sand becomes so heavy that it can collapse officers. The result of the sand’s weight takes a heavy toll on us; substance abuse, anxiety, depression, failed marriages, and other emotional and physical ailments that rise well above societal averages plague our profession.”

In an international meta-analytic study completed in 2012, researchers Claudia Morales-Manrique and Juan Valderrama-Zurian identified strong links between the high-demand/low-control nature of police work and the high stress levels that negatively impact the physical and mental health of police officers. In high-demand/low-control careers, individuals are required to be at constant peak performance levels, stemming from the unpredictability and wide range of scenarios that can be presented to them.

Research suggests that officer rates of completed suicides are three times higher than in the general population. In January 2014, Perry Mason, a retired Canadian constable (police officer), publicly described in an interview with The Hamilton Spectator his suicidal thoughts and a very near suicide attempt during his career. During 34 years of service, Mason also recounted that seven of his fellow officers had died from suicide. Mason admitted that he sought help, but also kept it highly secret because of his fears of possible repercussions to his career. He never disclosed his suicidal thoughts until after he retired.


Dilemmas and challenges complicating treatment

The high rates of physical and mental health conditions among law enforcement officers reflect the need for medical and behavioral support and treatment. However, treatment resistance is often a significant barrier.

In 2002, the American Psychological Association recognized the need to take a closer look at law enforcement as a special population and to define guidelines for forensic psychology. Ensuring public safety requires that officers are mentally, emotionally and physically stable and deemed “fit for duty” to perform effectively.

Law enforcement personnel often struggle to manage the challenges associated with competing demands. Very intense and difficult circumstances must be addressed while simultaneously mitigating the impact those demands have on personal health and well-being. Seeking and adhering to needed medical and behavioral treatments can present specific dilemmas and challenges.

Law enforcement officers are legally and ethically mandated to maintain good physical and mental health. However, the stressors these individuals face, ranging from inconsistent shift work to frequent and unpredictable threats to life, result in both physical and emotional challenges for the majority of officers during an average career. Law enforcement employers are legally obligated to verify and monitor officers to ensure physical, mental and emotional stability, as well as job performance capability. As a result, any signs of behavior that are in question, either on or off duty, are subject to scrutiny by the officer’s department or chain of command.

Every single law enforcement officer undergoes fit-for-duty evaluations that entail a combination of psychological testing and interviewing. In the book Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement (2006), Laurence Miller writes that failure of the evaluation may result in job loss or suspension. An unintended consequence is that the majority of officers are hesitant to seek help with mental, emotional, relational or even physical issues because it could result in their inability to work.

According to retired police officer and psychologist Joel Fay in the April 2012 issue of the POA Journal, officers presenting with medical or mental health concerns often struggle taking medications as prescribed to address symptoms. Officers are restricted from having certain types of medications in their systems. For the safety of the public and the officers, police departments have policies against the use of certain classifications of medications such as strong painkillers and benzodiazepines. An officer-involved accident or shooting is often subject to a review of the incident that includes blood tests to determine the possible presence of chemicals or medications that may have played a role in the incident. Officers recognize that doctors may be unaware of these restrictions. Unable to fully understand the classifications of medications, officers may consequently resist taking prescribed medications.

So, what can we do as clinicians to help reduce the stigma and minimize the fear that going to counseling has for many law enforcement officers? The first step is to help officers understand their rights to privacy. I asked the legal experts at Bruno, Colin & Lowe P.C., with more than 60 years’ combined experience in protecting the rights of law enforcement officers in Colorado, and Mariya Dvoskina, a police and public safety psychologist with Nicoletti-Flater Associates, experts in the evaluation and critical incident response for law enforcement officers, to give me “just the facts.”

Collectively, we identified eight myths that keep many law enforcement officers from seeking support through counseling. Because each state may have some independent legislation in this regard, it is important for clinicians to verify the legal standards in the individual states in which they practice.


The myths

Myth #1

Departments/agencies have the right to obtain information about officers that seek help from licensed mental health professionals.

False! Licensed mental health professionals are legally and ethically bound to protect client privacy. If an officer reaches out to a therapist on his or her own — in other words, if the officer wasn’t ordered to see a therapist by a court or the officer’s department — then the employer doesn’t even have the right to know that the officer is attending therapy. Nothing that is said in counseling can be released to anyone without the officer’s written consent. The U.S. Supreme court has ruled that the confidential relationship between a psychotherapist and an officer is privileged. To learn more, see http://www.apa.org/about/offices/ogc/amicus/jaffee.aspx

The only times confidentiality can be broken are for the reasons below, which apply to every client/patient.

  • A suspected incident of child abuse or neglect must be reported.
  • A threat of imminent physical harm by a patient must be reported to law enforcement and to the person(s) threatened.
  • A mental health evaluation must be initiated for a patient who is imminently dangerous to self or to others, or who is gravely disabled, as a result of a mental disorder.
  • A suspected threat to national security must be reported to federal officials.
  • Suspected abuse of a senior adult (70 years of age or older), including institutional neglect, physical injury, financial exploitation or unreasonable restraint, must be reported.


Myth #2

Rights to privacy change if you use your insurance or employee assistance program (EAP).

False! Treatment by a licensed mental health professional that is paid for by your insurance company or your EAP is protected by HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), and the same rules apply.

Sometimes patients choose not to use insurance benefits so that their outpatient treatment remains separate from their medical record.


Myth #3

There is no reason to see a licensed professional because the rules are exactly the same with a peer support team.

False! Limits to confidentiality vary by department and the standards may be different than those that licensed professionals have. The peer support member must disclose these limitations in the first meeting. In addition to the exceptions to confidentiality listed in Myth #1, most peer support teams are also expected to report crimes and sometimes policy violations. Outside of those limitations, conversations between a peer support member and an officer are confidential.


Myth #4

The department or agency automatically has a right to know if an officer receives a mental health diagnosis or takes medication.

False! HIPAA protects both diagnosis and medication or other treatment methods because they are part of the clinical record and therefore confidential. If an officer would like the department to know this information, he or she must sign a release of information. Otherwise, the professional treatment provider cannot disclose anything related to the client/patient to the department or anyone else.


Myth #5

If an officer seeks help from a hospital or a rehabilitation facility voluntarily, the department automatically has the right to this information.

False! The department can only access information that an officer has granted it permission to have, as is the case with any other medical condition.


Myth #6

If an officer is placed on an M-1 hold, he or she automatically loses their right to carry and possess a firearm.

False! When there is a court-approved certification for an involuntary mental health hold, restrictions to weapons are limited while the certification is active. If the provider that requested the certification acknowledges that the client/patient is no longer a danger to themselves or anyone else, then the restriction can and should be released as well.


Myth #7

If an officer seeks the support of a licensed mental health professional, that automatically means that the officer is not fit for duty.

False! Seeking counseling voluntarily would NEVER automatically mean that an officer is unfit for duty.


Myth #8

Counseling is the same as a fit-for-duty evaluation.

False! The most important question to ask is “Who is the client?” If the officer is seeking support on his or her own, all of the rights stated above belong to the officer. If the department is the client, as is the case in a pre-employment evaluation or a fitness-for-duty evaluation, then the information most often belongs to the department.



Jessika Redman is a licensed professional counselor, a national certified counselor and the founder of Well Relate LLC (http://www.wellrelate.com) in Castle Rock, Colorado. Contact her at jessika@wellrelate.com.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Angry nation: A counseling perspective

By Carol ZA McGinnis January 18, 2018

“O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave …” is a favorite line in our country’s National Anthem because it seems to simultaneously confirm our current liberties and challenge us to answer how relevant this symbol still is. In light of the events of the past year — horrific shootings, kneeling protesters, the ravages of addiction and various controversies that pitted one patriot against another — it prompts us to ask, “Does the flag wave for me?”

Some who have responded with unreasonable aggression may be answering that question in anger. I would argue that Americans as a whole do not have healthy anger modeling readily available to them. Consider audience behavior at select sporting events, the returns experience at customer service counters and vigilante films from Hollywood. Our culture does not offer a wide variety of positive angering examples.

Anger is a research topic that has not received much attention. For that reason, it is important to ask a question: What if the root of this violence and political division stems from a limited understanding of how to anger in a healthy way? It could be that our nation suffers from dysfunctional anger associated with a wide variety of diagnoses.


Dysfunctional anger

Regardless of our personal thoughts on this topic, it is important to note that President Donald Trump conceptualized the Nov. 5 shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, as being the result of a mental health problem. If we are to approach this from a sociocultural counseling perspective, it makes sense to add our professional thoughts on how that may be so.

Since the Columbine tragedy in 1999, research has shown that ostracism and isolation are correlated with aggressive actions. The perceived injustice of being left out or treated unfairly often results in dysfunctional anger and violence. Could it be that we have an epidemic gap in social modeling for functional anger? If so, how can we in the counseling profession begin a national process for addressing this psychoeducational need?

This may seem like crazy talk to many people. When news breaks of another Sandy Hook, the Las Vegas shooting or the more recent Baptist church tragedy, there are those who ask, in genuine bafflement, “Who does this?” We have difficulty making sense of such senseless acts. We want to reassure ourselves that the individuals who carry out these acts are much different from the rest of us in the “normal” population. To this question of “Who does this?” I would like to present the Lucas scenario.


The Lucas scenario

Imagine an ordinary classroom of preschool children. The room features a large space in which to play with building blocks. Every child in this room has access to the same number of blocks and the same space to work, either independently or together, as desired. Imagine that all of the children are happily at work, building towers, bridges, cities or whatever else comes to mind.

In the corner, Lucas is busily stacking block after block in his effort to build a tower when someone walks by to open the door for a parent. This action shifts the rug just enough to interfere with the balancing act of Lucas’ creation. As a result, the stack of blocks falls. Lucas collects the blocks and begins anew, taking care to brace the bottom of the tower with heavier reinforcements. He gets his tower back to the previous height in a short amount of time.

Minutes later, one of the other children throws a wadded paper ball that Lucas tries to catch. Inadvertently, he knocks the top of his own tower over. He must rebuild half of his tower yet again. Undaunted, Lucas is excited to be moving into the second phase of his design when the teacher stops to give him encouragement and suggest that he consider replacing the bottom blocks with thicker options because of the height his tower is reaching. When he tries to swap those blocks out, the tower crumbles yet again. When Lucas expresses dissatisfaction with this event, the teacher scolds him gently and tells him, “Just start again.”

Having already endured multiple mishaps that required him to start over, Lucas twice more attempts to build “the highest tower ever.” When a friend falls close by and knocks over his highest version yet, Lucas reaches the end of his rope. He has lost all hope. He is frustrated and angry that everyone else has been able to build without interruption. He feels this injustice at the very core of his being. Nothing that he has attempted has worked. Even the teacher was complicit in his failure to have what everyone else has had.

What do you think Lucas’ next move might be? What models for anger has he witnessed at this young stage of development? What choices are available?

More than likely, Lucas will want to exact justice by leveling the playing field. To destroy everyone else’s towers would help them all to know firsthand what Lucas had had to endure, and doesn’t he deserve a little payback? Why should he be the only one to suffer? Why shouldn’t the other children feel as miserable and alone as he does?

It is not difficult to see how this response might also play out in the adult world, where the prospective offender is provided with guns, bombs, cars and other means for leveling the field. The fact is that many people never learn how to anger in a healthy way; it is our job as counselors to fill that gap.


Theoretical explanations

This scenario is just one possibility for Lucas, but the point is clearly made when we consider the decision for otherwise “normal” people to decide on a whim to obtain a gun, or a vast array of guns, and go shoot innocent men, women and children. What if this breaking point is not only understandable but preventable if we can introduce another way to anger?

Gun laws and mental health funding may be important to consider as we begin to address violence in our society, but it is also easy to see how new theoretical explanations will be needed. Some counselors may ask whether these violent outbursts are tied to a resilience issue, whereas others will want to learn if these responses are related to cognitive processes, behavioral reinforcement or social modeling.

No matter what orientation is taken, however, it seems obvious that anger must be included in research on this topic. According to most theoretical approaches, our work does not stop at the individual level but must also attend to the larger community. The ACA Code of Ethics also calls for our aspirational response to the needs of the larger community.

One way to do that is to consider how we can help people find alternative ways to express their anger without using a gun to shoot innocent people. Might cultural role models such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus Christ provide a starting point? What options can we introduce for clients who may not have skills in this area? How might we begin the process of helping others to express anger in positive ways?

Let’s hold President Trump to his opinion on this topic with requests for research funding that will help to create change in angering. Together, we can help our Angry Nation become a community of change and resolution without the need for violence.





Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “Angry words

Counselors often face the delicate challenge of helping clients to view anger as a helpful symptom and tool rather than something to be avoided: wp.me/p2BxKN-3ho




Carol ZA McGinnis, a licensed clinical professional counselor and national certified counselor, is a pastoral counselor and counselor educator who specializes in anger processing. Her passion involves teaching with attention paid to religion and spirituality as positive factors in both counseling and counselor development. Contact her at cmcginnis@messiah.edu.

Letters to the editor: CT@counseling.org




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Adding a counselor’s voice to law enforcement work

By Bethany Bray March 17, 2016

For Gregory Moffatt, counseling and crime solving go hand in hand.

Moffatt, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), runs a private practice in which he specializes in working with children who have experienced physical or sexual abuse. He is also a professor of counseling at Point University in West Point, Georgia.

The other half of his career, however, is a little more unconventional. He’s a risk assessment and psychological consultant for businesses, schools and law enforcement agencies. Moffatt has done everything from assisting with hostage situations and unsolved cold case investigations to teaching at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. In addition to providing training and consultation, he evaluates police officers who have been involved in a duty-related shooting to determine if they’re ready to return to active work on the force.

He’s also filming on-camera commentary as a psychological consultant for a new cable television show on hostage situations. The program, titled “Deadly Demands,” premiers March 21 on Investigation Discovery, a network of the Discovery Channel.

After years of working with corporations and law enforcement agencies, Moffatt is often the person they call to evaluate unusual situations, such as when an employee is making co-workers uneasy or

Gregory Moffatt, LPC and professor of counseling at Point University in West Point, Georgia

Gregory Moffatt, LPC and professor of counseling at Point University

a case arises that doesn’t fit the norm. It’s not a niche that he initially set out to carve for himself, but rather one that he entered “through the back door,” he says.

When Moffatt first started teaching at Point University more than three decades ago, he was the only professional counselor on campus. One day, the university’s administration approached him and asked for his help with a situation involving a student who was stalking another student.

“Stalking laws weren’t in place. Back then, even the term [stalking] wasn’t an everyday term,” says Moffatt, an American Counseling Association member. “Back then, hardly anyone did work in violence risk assessment.”

As he got involved in the case, Moffatt started researching risk assessment methods, which grew into a personal area of interest. He eventually established his own consulting business, through which he provides workplace violence assessment and training. The FBI contacted him to provide training at its academy in Quantico after he published an article in an academic journal on violence risk and assessment.

Law enforcement agencies are good at lots of things, but threat assessment isn’t always one of them, Moffatt says. That’s where his skills as a professional counselor can help fill in the “why” of a situation, he says.

Moffatt uses his counselor training to look at a specific situation’s “collection of evidence,” he says. For instance, how does the person tell his or her story? What indicators can be found in the language the person uses? What does his or her past behavior indicate? What coping skills does the person have?

“My job is to tell them [a company or law enforcement], ‘This is what I think; this is what you’re looking for,’” Moffatt says. “The question for us, in mental health, when someone’s sitting in our office is, ‘Is this person a risk?’ Sometimes the answer is yes. … How many coping skills does he [the client] have in his toolbox? If it’s a pretty empty toolbox, then I’m worried.”

For example, Moffatt was contacted by local law enforcement to evaluate the threat level of some letters a judge was receiving in the mail. Officials suspected the letters were being written by a man who had come through the judge’s courtroom for a minor infraction, he says.

Moffatt looked at the man’s behavior history (he had brandished a firearm in the past but never fired at anyone) and the language used in the letters. His counselor training helped him pick up clues — for example, symptoms of delusion and other things that would make a person unpredictable — to determine that the man was a “big talker,” but that the letters were most likely a way of “puffing out his chest” rather than an actual threat.

“I thought there was a very low possibility that he would shoot this judge. Years later, nothing has come of it,” Moffatt says.

Today, he works regularly with the Atlanta Police Department’s cold case squad and writes a regular column on children’s and family issues for The Citizen, a newspaper distributed in Fayette County, Georgia.

Moffatt says he is drawn to the sometimes gritty specialty of crime and violence assessment because he likes being part of the solution and helping to bring some closure to the victims of crimes.

“The world is not made up [solely] of bad guys and good guys,” he says. “If you go to any prison in the country, you will find a small percentage [of the inmates who] are horrible and need to stay locked up for the rest of their lives. The rest are human beings who have made a mistake. The hardest part about our job [as counselors] is to have compassion. We can take people, in any condition, and help them become more functional.”


Q+A: Gregory Moffatt


You encourage all counselors to learn more about risk assessment, whether through reading, professional development, trainings, etc. Why do you feel this particular topic is important for counselors to know?

Risk assessment is necessary in any clinical context. Violence happens in homes, schools, workplaces, on the bus, on the street and in the synagogue/cathedral. Assessing for violent behavior against others is just as important as assessing for suicide risk, [which is] something we do regularly. You don’t have to specialize in workplace violence or school violence for this to be part of your assessment toolbox.


Do law enforcement professionals often think of or turn to psychologists first when looking for help with mental health expertise? From your perspective, what can a professional counselor offer in this area that is different than other helping professions?

Actually, I don’t think most law enforcement people know the difference. Even when they do, they often have limited or no budgets for outside consultation. Professional counselors are cheaper than psychologists, typically. Counselors are just as competent to offer fitness for duty interventions/assessments, post-shooting intervention, violence intervention/anger management and other common needs in law enforcement as any psychologist — assuming, as always, that one is trained to deal with that population. This training is readily available to LPCs.


What suggestions would you give to counselors looking to help or make a connection with their local law enforcement or violence prevention agencies?

Law enforcement agencies are notoriously fraternal, and even agency to agency there is little cooperation. A given agency believes it is better than any other agency, and going outside law enforcement is seen as a negative. However, developing relationships and bringing skills to the table — especially if it is cost-effective — is the way in the door over time.


What are some of the main takeaways that you’ve gleaned from your work with law enforcement and risk assessment that you want professional counselors to know?

Behavioral/mental health issues are present in all corners of life. Finding a way to apply your interests in mental health in specific climates — e.g., schools, law enforcement, court — is what makes one’s career fascinating and rewarding. I look back on 30 years of work — opening doors, looking for opportunities and taking those opportunities — and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve helped hundreds of children, written hundreds of articles and numerous books, spoken to thousands of audiences and helped put many bad guys in jail — hence, making the world safer and people happier. Who could ask for more?




Read more about Gregory Moffat’s work and find a list of suggested resources on trauma, violence, parenting and other topics at his website, gregmoffatt.com




Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


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Behind the Book: Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness

By Bethany Bray June 9, 2015

The most effective solution to rampage violence, such as school or workplace shootings, is early, easy and frequent access to care for potential perpetrators, says Brian Van Brunt, author of Harm to Others: The Assessment and Treatment of Dangerousness.

Counselors play an integral part in this care, through identifying individuals who are at-risk and Depositphotos_31165405_sproviding treatment to move those individuals off the pathway of violence. These two skill sets – assessment and treatment of dangerousness – are essential, yet often lacking in counselor training and education programs, Van Brunt says.

In order to accurately identify individuals who pose a threat, counselors must work against the assumption that mental illness is often coupled with dangerousness or violence.

“Clinical staff typically are asked to assess individuals with mental health disorders who pose a potential for risk to others,” Van Brunt writes in the book introduction. “… ‘Harm to others,’ in other words, is focused more on mental health motivating causes that drive individuals to violence. However, the problem lately has been that many of the individuals being dropped off at the counselor’s office (particularly in K-12 and higher education settings) are making threats or posing a threat to others but have no indication of mental health problems … Although mental illness may be an important contributing factor in any of these [clients], the core of any assessment must be based on threat assessment principals, not clinical pathology.”

Van Brunt, the senior vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group, has a doctoral degree in counseling supervision and education. He is past president of the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), a division of the American Counseling Association.


Counseling Today caught up with Van Brunt to talk about his book, Harm to Others, and the importance of the assessment and treatment of dangerousness.


What do you hope counselors take away from the book about this topic?

I think there is a dearth of training in our field when looking at the assessment and treatment of those who represent a harm to others. Many graduate and doctoral programs teach suicide assessment and risk assessment, but few focus on the assessment of dangerousness in a way that is based on workplace violence literature. Simply stated, we are well prepared to assess a psychotic patient who is hallucinating and make a determination around commitment or hospitalization, but not prepared very well to assess the high school student who threatens to “go all Columbine” if they don’t have a grade on their final paper changed from a D to a C.

My book provides counselors clear and practical guidance on the fundamentals of how to conduct a violence risk assessment. Harm to Others closes the knowledge gap for new and seasoned clinicians being asked to conduct these kinds of assessments and work with challenging, hostile and difficult patients.


In your opinion, what makes professional counselors a “good fit” for violence assessment and training? What unique skills do they bring to the table?

I’d suggest a willingness to learn about how to do this important work in a research-supported manner. In my experience, an enthusiasm to learn more about violence and risk assessments is much more critical than an advanced academic degree. Many in the threat assessment community come from law enforcement or counseling backgrounds and have learned how to complete risk and threat assessments through on-the-job training, individual scholarship through workplace violence books and articles, and training through organizations such as the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) and the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NaBITA). But the underlying connection for a “good fit” tends to be a willingness to devote the time and energy to this scholarship.

This can create a bit of a challenge since there is no current licensure or certification standard when it comes to violence risk or threat assessment, so there is no objective standard of what makes a good threat assessment that exists in the law enforcement or psychology field at this time. As with clinical licensure and certification, a focus on research-informed practice, adherence to ethical standards found in both psychology and law enforcement, individual supervision and hands-on experience would be the four pillars I would suggest when preparing to do this kind of work.

I would also suggest the ability to build rapport and lower an individual’s defenses is critical in this work. Forming an attachment with the person who is being assessed is key to obtaining accurate data in order to build a valid risk or threat assessment. Crisis and emergency clinicians, those who work with personality disorders in their client caseload, family therapist and those who assess and treat teenagers often have skills in developing rapport and connection in difficult and adverse conditions.



What are some misconceptions you feel counselors have about dangerousness in clients?

I think one of the biggest problems that leads to misconceptions is an over-reliance on mental health diagnosis when it comes to assessing or treating dangerousness. There is an assumption that mental health problems such as depression, autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety leads to dangerousness or violence. This is one of the reasons I stress a solid overview and study in the field of threat and violence risk assessment. This is a problem beyond mental health concerns. And this distinction is often a difficult one for the public or untrained clinician to always appreciate. For example, the diagnosis of depression isn’t a central risk factor for targeted violence; instead we look at hopelessness and desperation. The diagnosis of ASD isn’t the concern; it’s the potential accompanying social isolation that prevents the assessment of the escalating threat.

There is also the distinction between ‘being a threat’ and ‘making a threat.’ This is often a source of difficulty for those new to this work. While direct threats are always cause for concern, the follow up assessment of the lethality of this threat becomes paramount. While all of us understand we would be concerned with someone at work who tells his supervisor “I’m going to come into work tomorrow with a katana sword and go all Kill Bill (the Quentin Tarantino films about an assassin) on you,” the real assessment here comes in understanding issues of weapons access, action and time imperative, fixation and focus on target and similar risk factors. I reference many of these factors in Harm to Others and refer frequently to the giants in the field such as Reid Meloy; Stephen Hart; Mary Ellen O’Toole; Michael Gelles and James Turner; and Frederick Calhoun and Stephen Weston to help counselors develop a deeper understanding of the questions they should be asking when assessing or treating a potentially violent client.



Do you feel today’s counselors are coming out of graduate school with adequate training/knowledge of violence assessment and treatment?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

There are a number of excellent programs out there such as George Mason University’s forensic program chaired by Mary Ellen O’Toole and Alliant International University’s program under Eric Hickey in California, but assessing and treating potential dangerousness in clients is an issue that hasn’t yet been included in most psychology graduate programs. There certainly is a focus on crisis counseling, assessing suicidality, conducting mental health assessments and assessing and treating violence in higher risk clients with bi-polar, substance abuse, or psychotic disorders, but none of this really gets to the underlying core of work on violence and risk assessment that exists in the professional literature on workplace violence.


What would you want all counselor practitioners — marriage counselors, addictions counselors, mental health counselors, etc. — to know about violence assessment and treatment?

Well, first, I would suggest an understanding that these are two different skill sets. Assessing a potential threat is different than on-going therapy and treatment with a potentially violent or dangerous client.

Second, I would want all licensed clinicians to at least have a basic understanding of the risk factors related to targeted or rampage violence. If I was in a room of counselors and I asked what the risk factors were for suicide, I would quickly get a response. They would tell me being a male, age 18 to 22 years old. They would talk about lethality, access to means, prior attempts, situational stressors and having a plan. Suicide risk factors are well taught and well understood not only by clinicians; even the lay public has a foundational knowledge of what to look for if they were concerned about a potential friend or colleague who might be suicidal.

When it comes to risk factors that indicate a potential for harm to others, I think most clinicians draw a blank. They may guess at social isolation or wearing all black. They may suggest an anti-social tendency or disenfranchisement. They may talk about being on medication or playing violent video games. But few clinicians have a good understanding of what risk factors are supported by literature to better understand the risk of rampage or targeted violence. In Harm to Others, I provide several lists of these risk factors with practical examples of how to assess and mitigate these items to help prevent future violence.

While we do not excel at predicting violence; this remains a holy grail for the violence risk and threat assessment field. While we will never develop an accurate model of violence predication, we can certainly identify risk factors and prevent violence. Think of the risk factors of a heart attack. We understand these well: lack of exercise, being obese, hereditary factors, poor diet, and smoking. Each of these risk factors are targeted by public health prevention and education programs to reduce the risk of a heart attack. Yet, we can’t predict a heart attack. This is how we should think about identifying the risk factors for rampage or targeted violence. Our goal becomes prevention and intervention, rather than predication.


In the book introduction, you write, “The most effective solution to rampage violence is early, easy and frequent access to care for potential perpetrators.” In your opinion, how can counselors play a role in this access to care?

Quite frankly, we need to become that care. The reality is those who most need to be in counseling to change the path to violence they are on are the least likely to show up and remain connected to care.

It reminds me of the streetlight effect — the old story about the drunk man looking for his keys. It goes like this: A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”

Most of us spend our time providing therapy with those clients who voluntarily come in for treatment, but those in real need, those who have lost hope and find their only solace by sitting alone andSecurity business man avoid danger risk planning these kind of horrific attacks, are not connected to care. Our mental health system fails them under the guise of individual rights. We do not have an adequate step between voluntary outpatient care and involuntary inpatient commitments.

We need a mental health system in the United States that functions more like our child protective service system. When a child is found at risk, an investigation occurs and a caseworker is assigned. The case remains open until the risk is mitigated. We don’t have a system like that for violence risk to others. Too many times we end up shaking our heads saying things like “Well, we all are concerned, but there is nothing we can do until the person breaks the law or threatens someone.” We say, “They need to be in counseling, but they aren’t an acute danger to themselves or others, so we can’t mandate or force the issues.” We need to address this gap. Without the ability to require care once the risk factors are identified, there is little hope to reduce targeted violence.

And of course, this raises the specter of Big Brother. The recent National Security Agency (NSA) scandal doesn’t help matters much either. Yet, we are willing to take away individual rights of parents when a child is at risk. I struggle with why we don’t have a similar mechanism in place when there is an individual who has many of the risk factors, yet hasn’t broken any laws or doesn’t meet commitment criteria. We need to address this Goldilocks problem when the porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. How do we attend to the student everyone is concerned about, but hasn’t yet broken the law or school conduct code?



What advice would you give to a counselor who wants to work on/improve their violence assessment and treatment skills? What resources would you point them toward?

There are three trainings that I would recommend for a counselor looking to improve their skills in violence risk assessment.

  • The Association of Threat Assessment Professionals was the place I started my journey in the area of threat assessment. They offer an amazing conference each August in Anaheim, California.
  • My organization, NaBITA also offers detailed training in violence risk and threat assessment and we hold our conference annually; this fall it is in San Antonio.
  • Stephen Hart also offers a wonderful set of trainings and workshops on the topic of Structured Professional Judgment (SPJ) through the company Proactive Resolutions.

If attending a conference or training is outside of your budget, I would suggest the following three books that have been very useful in my personal training and experience in violence risk and threat assessment.

  • The first is Reid Meloy and Jens Hoffmann’s International Handbook of Threat Assessment (2013). This collection of articles provides the reader with a sound overview of the current state of the field.
  • The second book is by Michael Gelles and James Turner: Threat Assessment: A Risk Management Approach (2003). This book is a very accessible starting place for those interested in the process of threat assessment.
  • The final book would be Mary Ellen O’Toole’s book Dangerous Instincts (2012). This text offers uncanny insight into the world of identifying and assessing threat.


What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve written several other books that circled this topic. Ending Campus Violence: Prevention Strategies and New Approaches to Prevention (2012) was written to a college and university administration and student affairs audience. A Faculty Guide to Disruptive and Dangerous Behavior in the Classroom (2013) was written to faculty who wanted better guidance on managing classroom behavior and identifying dangerous students.

This book, Harm to Others came from frequent requests (I’ve received) at trainings from counselors and psychologists around the country who are being asked to conduct violence risk assessments on their clients. This book provides them with a practical guide full of examples and additional resources to better assess and work with dangerous individuals.




About the author


Brian Van Brunt is president of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association and senior vice president of the Pennsylvania-based National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM) Group, a law and consulting firm that addresses risk management issues in educational settings. An author of several books, he is a frequent speaker and trainer on issues of threat assessment, mental health and crisis management across the globe.

Van Brunt has a doctoral degree in counseling supervision and education from the University of Sarasota/Argosy and a master’s degree in counseling and psychological services from Salem State University in Massachusetts.




Branding-Box_Van-BruntHarm to Others: The Assessment of Treatment of Dangerousness is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222







For more information

Brian Van Brunt was also interviewed for a recent American Counseling Association podcast, titled “Harm to others.” Listen to the hour-long podcast here: counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts/docs/default-source/aca-podcasts/ht052—harm-to-others





Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


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