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News Maryland Howard County Columbia

Howard Co. establishes task force to assess mental health issues

Howard County is creating a task force charged with developing a comprehensive behavioral health action plan for the county — one that officials say is needed, in part, in response to the January shooting deaths at The Mall in Columbia.

"When we had the tragedy at Columbia mall, it forced us to take another look" at ways to address mental health issues, said County Executive Ken Ulman. On Wednesday, Ulman attended a discussion at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia and signed an order creating the task force.

On Jan. 25, Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, entered a store at the mall and shot and killed two clerks, Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy, before taking his own life.

Police later said Aguilar had been urged by a doctor to seek psychiatric help, and this week, Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said that when forensics teams were going over Aguilar's Internet history, they found he had been looking for resources to address mental problems.

"Many of the problems our officers handle in the community, including various emergencies, assaults on police and even some crimes, are rooted in mental illness," William McMahon said.

Members of the task force will include the county police chief, the president of Howard County General Hospital, local health providers and county officials. The group will deliver recommendations by January.

County officials said goals for the Behavioral Health Action Plan Task Force include assessing what community groups now provide to support those with mental illness, identifying gaps in care, and providing policy, program and funding recommendations.

Ulman said the county has "service gaps," and the task force will serve as a way for agencies dealing with mental health to keep the lines of communication open.

"It's about making sure we're identifying the gaps," he said.

Howard County's new operating budget includes funding for initiatives under the plan, such as $70,000 for a second mobile crisis team to work with police, $100,000 in salary and equipment for a police officer position to focus on mental health-related issues, and $28,700 for mental health training, which educates the general public on early warning signs and symptoms.

McMahon said he was pleased with the emphasis on training police.

"Since police respond to calls 24 hours a day, we are often the first ones on a scene," the chief said. "Partnering and training with mental health experts is critical in helping us provide the safest, best service to all our residents."

Donna Wells, executive director of the Howard County Mental Health Authority, said the mental health training is especially critical. Referring to Aguilar, she said, "There were people who knew he was having issues, but they didn't know what they were supposed to do about it."

Wells noted that many people need help.

"All of us know someone" who is affected by mental illness, she said. "We're all touched by this in some way.

"The county has always been very supportive [of mental health programs]. I don't know of any other jurisdiction that has put as much of their own funds into these efforts."

Eric Aldrich, vice president of medical affairs at Howard County General Hospital, said the facility has struggled to properly accommodate the increasing number of patients seeking mental health treatment, about half of whom aren't from the county.

"We are not performing where we need to be," he said. "We have more of a reactive behavior services program than a proactive one."

Still, he is encouraged that the county has made the matter a priority.

"We know we have a lot of work to do," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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