Howard County task force to focus on mental health

After last January's Columbia mall shootings – when Darion Marcus Aguilar, 19, entered a store and shot and killed employees Brianna Benlolo, 21, of College Park, and Tyler Johnson, 25, of Mount Airy, before taking his own life – there was an exhaustive effort to determine a motive. What Howard County police eventually found was that Aguilar had been searching online for resources to address mental isssues after having been urged to seek psychiatric help.

What county and police officials also realized is the need to understand more and to have better training to deal with those issues.

Nearly six months after the shooting, on June 11, County Executive Ken Ulman announced that that the county is creating a task force charged with developing a comprehensive behavioral health action plan."When we had the tragedy at Columbia mall, it forced us to take another look" at ways to address mental health issues, Ulman said.

The purpose of the plan is to examine mental heath services in the county and identify possible improvements, which could include more collaboration between existing organizations, funding new programs, and implementing policy changes.

"While we have made great strides in our response training and understanding of mental health challenges, we know there is more to be done," Ulman said. "We have dedicated professionals working on the front lines every day. But we need to break down silos, and work together more, with greater communication. We also know we need more investment, and there are service gaps."

He added: "Our community deserves the best services we can provide, and we can be a national model."

The 31-member task force will be appointed by Ulman and will include: Howard County General Hospital President Steven Snelgrove, County Health Officer Maura Rossman, future police Chief Gary Gardner, the State's Attorney, other county officials, three behavioral health providers, four medical providers, and others. The group is expected to deliver recommendations by January.

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

The order was signed at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia – a facility operated by a county-supported nonprofit that provides shelter, crisis-intervention services, and outreach to the homeless – after a roundtable discussion.

During the discussion, stakeholders, including future task force members, spoke about the importance of developing a plan.

"Behavioral health has become a public health crisis," Rossman said in a news release. "We have identified it as one of the three key priorities of the Health Department. Working with our partner agencies to find innovative solutions to an ever-growing community challenge is a process we are anxious to begin."

Current police Chief Bill McMahon, who is retiring later this month, said "many of the problems" his officers respond to are "rooted in mental illness."

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

Nicolette Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation – a county nonprofit committed to improving overall health in the county – said the organization has conducted a behavioral needs assessment, which will be presented to the task force.

"Too often, behavioral health needs slip between the cracks and go undiagnosed or untreated," said Vernick, who is also serving on the task force.

County Council chair and vice-chair Calvin Ball and Courtney Watson threw their support behind the initiative.

"This is such an important issue, and I am pleased the County Council was able to provide the funding to move forward," Watson said.

Ball said: "We need to work together on this critical issue, and this task force is an important step in that direction."

The task force will begin meeting on Aug. 1, and will cease to exist on June 1, 2015, according to the order.

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