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Tyler Bohn of Mt. Airy, a former employee of Zumiez, and good friend of Brianna Benlolo, sits on his longboard thinking about her in front of a memorial life in her memory at the Mall in Columbia on Monday, Jan 27. Benlolo, one of the two shooting victims, inspired Bohn to start longboarding.
Tyler Bohn of Mt. Airy, a former employee of Zumiez, and good friend of Brianna Benlolo, sits on his longboard thinking about her in front of a memorial life in her memory at the Mall in Columbia on Monday, Jan 27. Benlolo, one of the two shooting victims, inspired Bohn to start longboarding. (Brian Krista, Patuxent Homestead)

Howard County is partnering with two of the county's biggest public health institutions on a new mental health initiative, County Executive Allan Kittleman announced Tuesday.

The news follows the release of a report last month from the Behavioral Health Task Force, a group charged with examining the county's mental health services and identifying areas that need strengthening.

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The 85-page report recommended a number of improvements to the county's services, including strengthening emergency mental health care services, expanding community education and funding a full-time mental health case worker to work with individuals in the courts system.

"Often, Howard County residents face pronounced challenges in achieving a full state of wellness because of gaps in our community's behavioral health system of care," the report's introduction asserts. "People living with addiction and mental illness in our county often struggle to understand their diagnosis, find treatment, navigate through care, and access supportive services -- like housing and employment – that can help the road to recovery."

Kittleman said he was following up on the report's recommendations with three new initiatives, which will be funded in the operating budget for fiscal year 2016:

• Hiring a behavioral specialist for the county Health Department's Community Care Teams, which work alongside Howard County General Hospital to treat people who are hospitalized frequently;

• Creating a pilot program with the hospital and Way Station, a Columbia-based mental health nonprofit, to offer outpatient crisis stabilization services for patients within one to two days of a hospital visit; and

• Updating the Howard County Mental Health Authority's online provider directory to correct provider information.

The Horizon Foundation, a public health nonprofit that awards grants to local organizations, is contributing $50,000 to the mental health initiative, according to a county press release.

Kittleman said he planned to make mental health a top concern despite next fiscal year's anticipated budget challenges. Budget officials have said the county's revenue will grow by just $15 million next year.

"We know we have to do more, and while there are budget challenges, moving the needle to improve mental health services in Howard County is a priority for me, particularly when we have so many individuals going without mental health treatment because there is no facility or plan to deal with a crisis," Kittleman said in a statement.

The Behavioral Health Task Force was established last June by former County Executive Ken Ulman in the wake of a January shooting at The Mall in Columbia that left two victims and the shooter dead.

Nineteen-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar, who shot two employees at skate apparel shop Zumiez, had searched for information about mental health treatment but hadn't sought help, according to Howard County police.

During the summer, two Howard County men who police believe also suffered from mental health issues committed "suicide-by-cop" within the span of a week.

"We are trying to build a model public health community in Howard County. And what recent incidents illustrate – in an incredibly painful way – is the need for mental health treatment," Ulman said at the time.

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