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A University of Wisconsin Oshkosh graduate is making history in the Fox Cities by serving as the first behavioral health officer (BHO) with the Appleton Police Department (APD).

In 2008, Ignacio Enriquez moved to Appleton from Oxnard, California, where he had worked as a corrections services officer at the Ventura County Probation Agency for four years. Motivated by a need to continue helping people, he joined the APD in 2008.

“I wanted to become an advocate for individuals who have felt marginalized or abandoned in our community. I felt that becoming a police officer would afford me the greatest opportunities to connect and support people when hope was needed,” Enriquez said.

Throughout his time on the force, Enriquez has served as a patrol officer, SWAT crisis negotiator and most recently a school resource officer. His decision to pursue a master’s degree in professional counseling came from his enjoyment in developing meaningful relationships with members of the community but also wanting to learn now to be more empathetic and aware of the individual struggles people face.

Associate professor Charles Lindsey said the UW Oshkosh’s professional counseling department prepares graduates to respond to the multitude of changes in society and the ever-expanding counseling profession. He first met Enriquez in Foundations of Clinical Mental Health, a course that focuses on prevention and intervention programming, crisis and emergency management intervention, and outreach program development.

Enriquez shared that although his work provides critical services to the community it can also be dangerous, physically demanding, personally draining and—on bad days—heartbreaking.

“There is no debating that first responders are at a higher probability of interacting with a person with a mental health challenge. What often we don’t realize is these same first responders also are more likely to develop their own mental health challenges. Repeated exposure to traumatic events and stress combined with the fact that current models don’t always provide continued support or training can lead to a wide range of health and mental consequences,” Lindsey said.

While in the professional counseling program, Enriquez felt there was a need to formalize a position description for a behavioral health officer. Together the class designed a proposal that followed national law enforcement agency models where a dedicated officer is connected with consumers and professionals within mental health and alcohol and other drug abuse agencies. Lindsey said this part of the curriculum has the biggest impact on his students.

“Helping Ignacio develop a proposal for a dedicated behavioral health officer position helped our students understand that being an agent of change often also requires additional layers of investigation and navigating the politics of an organization to make the intended impact,”Lindsey explained.

Enriquez graduated with his master’s in professional counseling in 2016 and presented his proposal to the city council in early 2017. The city council worked to fund the position through the city budget, and Enriquez started work as the first full-time behavioral health officer on January 1, 2018.

In his new role, Enriquez will work to address individual and system mental health-related concerns and serve as the primary contact for government and private mental health systems and providers. Enriquez also will work directly with consumers to divert repeat calls for services to appropriate resources, create individual response plans for the APD and serve as the department’s liaison to Outagamie County diversionary courts.

Enriquez is thankful for those who have supported him.

“My UWO education is something no one can ever take away from me, and I will always treasure. The experience took time, energy and many tears, but I am thankful for my wife, Dr. Lindsey, my other professors and my fellow colleagues who helped me realize my degree and this position within the Appleton police department,” he said.

Lindsey expects a continued collaboration between Enriquez, the UW Oshkosh counseling department and future graduate students as they continue to evaluate current mental health-related police training and develop ongoing support systems for officers within the department on mental health-related topics.

“It has been an honor to watch Ignacio blend his identity as a police officer with his identity as a mental health professional. It is exciting to see the community embrace an opportunity to raise awareness about mental health. It truly is a win for everyone involved,” Lindsey said.

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