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Howard state candidates forum puts spotlight on mental health

Howard County's General Assembly candidates met Saturday to focus on a topic seldom discussed on the campaign trail: mental illness.

The issue came to the forefront in Howard early this year, when a man who police say showed signs of severe mental illness shot and killed two people and himself at the Mall in Columbia. Since then, County Executive Ken Ulman has introduced several initiatives to expand mental health training for county employees, hire a mental health professional for the county's police department and create a behavioral health task force to identify other programs the county might implement.

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In a forum hosted by the Howard County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and held at the Miller Branch library in Ellicott City, candidates were asked to consider issues of funding for behavioral health programs, support for crisis intervention teams and the possibility of passing legislation to allow outpatient civil commitment -- all priorities for NAMI in the 2015 session, which begins in early January.

Nearly all the candidates said mental illness had touched their lives in some way, with many sharing stories of family and friends who had fought depression and other diseases. Moderator Paul Skalny called mental illness "a crisis which I tihnk we all face in society today."

All the candidates, Democrat and Republican, agreed there was a need for more mental health services statewide, although some differed on the details of how to fund these programs and whether controversial legislation allowing some people with severe mental illness to be treated involuntarily crossed the boundaries of individual liberty.

District 9A delegate candidate Wally Carson, a Democrat, said he would lean on NAMI and other mental health organizations if he's elected. "I'm convinced I agree with all the recommendations and proposals from NAMI's legislative office. I would be supportive of your legislative program," Carson said.

Ward Morrow, the other Democrat running for the House of Delegates in District 9A, said he would focus on providing adequate funding for mental health programs. "Our Republican opponents talk about cutting government... They never tell you what to cut, [but] if they're in there they're going to cut something," he said. "Minimally, we need to make sure we're not cutting government programs."

Tom Coale, the Democratic candidate for a House seat in District 9B, highlighted his experience working with nonprofits and called for a holistic, public-private partnership approach to providing mental health care. "I think that what I'd really like to see, instead of the state just throwing money at a problem, to talk to our nonprofit partners… and make sure that we're listening to them and not just sending money," Coale said, adding that he would support the Safety Net Act, legislation providing for prison in-reach programs and behavioral health services in schools.

Bob Flanagan, Coale's Republican opponent, pointed out that the amount of money budgeted at the state level for mental health was ultimately proposed by the governor. However, he said, he would advocate for mental health programs in Annapolis. "Everytime we have someone with a mental health problem, we send them to a very expensive place," he said. "To properly identify this individual and provide them the right services is very important; they can actually save us money."

District 12 state Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, a Democrat running for re-election, focused on his previous support for mental health issues, and said he'd like to see every county in the state have a crisis intervention team. "I think my record has shown that I've been a strong advocate for mental health since I've been in Annapolis," he said. "I've always defended the mental health budget and going to the governor and his secretaries to make sure it has been protected to its fullest extent."

Jesse Pippy, the Republican challenging Kasemeyer, said the state "[needs] to be active and not reactive" when it comes to mental health issues. At the same time, he added, "we have to balance that with budget constraints. We can't just keep throwing money against the wall hoping it will stick."

Eric Ebersole, a teacher at Reservoir High School in Fulton and a Democrat running for a House seat in District 12, drew from his experiences to explain why he supported expanding the availability of crisis intervention teams throughout the state. "One thing I know is I'm not an expert at handling emotional crises," he said. "We need to make sure people in more exposed situations have the proper training."

Terri Hill, another Democrat running for one of District 12's three seats, said the keys to improving the state's mental health services were adequate budgeting and education. "I think it is a matter of funding, and I think one of the things that I'd like to look at is how we can be creative in our funding streams," Hill said. "Mental health issues overlap with so many things… For instance, maybe in the education budget we can look at ways of targeting money" to increase the number of counselors available in schools and make them available over the summer break.

Clarence Lam, the third Democrat campaigning for the House in District 12, said taking a preventative approach to mental health, as he does with physical health as a doctor, "will help take the burden off" the criminal justice system, emergency rooms and schools. "I think this is money well spent," he said of mental health budgeting.

Gordon Bull, a Republican candidate for the House in District 12, said he would support mental health initiatives but hoped to make the spending on such initiatives less expensive. A proponent of civil liberties, Bull said he would want to balance individual freedom with the potential benefits of outpatient civil commitment, an involuntary commitment for people with severe, high-risk mental illness. "I worry that people would be unjustly classified and receive extensive treatment they don't need," he said.

Joe Hooe, another Repubilcan candidate for the House in District 12, focused on his plan to raise money for the state by requiring illegal immigrants working in Maryland to purchase a temporary work permit. "I think we've heard from everyone... there's a need," he said. "No one, besides myself, has said where that money's going to come from."

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Rick Martel, the final Republican running for District 12, related his experiences as a lawyer to illustrate how the legal system is currently ill equipped, in his view, to handle people with mental illness. "I've been amazed... how woeful and weak we are in the criminal justice system dealing with these issues," Martel said. "This is one of the areas we need to prioritize."

Jody Venkatesan, a Republican running for state Senate in District 13, said the state's botched health care rollout, which he blamed on Annapolis Democrats, was detrimental to individuals with mental health problems. "I think it's a crying shame when we have poor people and people in need who can't get health care when they're promised that by the legislators," he said. "You deserve better."

Guy Guzzone, Shane Pendergrass and Frank Turner, all Democrats currently representing District 13 in the House of Delegates, talked about their experiences advocating for mental health programs. "As anyone knows who has been part of the funding process, we've been through some very challenging times and I believe you have to look for opportunities for when the political lineup is right to create a situation where you can fund critical components" of mental health programs, Guzzone said, "You can make policy or you can make a point. Making policy requires a lot of hard work and getting a lot of people together to do it."

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Pendergrass recalled sitting through gun regulation hearings as part of the health and government operations committee. She said she and other legislators had worked with mental health advocates "to find the right balance of protections for everyone."

"My rule is do no harm," Pendergrass said of her governing philosophy. "I try really hard to make things work a little better without doing something that I don't know what the unintended consequences will be."

Turner said the state is "moving in the right direction" when it comes to mental health issues -- not "as fast as we'd like to, but we are making progress, and that's what Annapolis is about." He said he and other Howard legislators had been successful in convincing the state to allow for more mental health funding to community-based institutions.

Jimmy Williams, a Republican running for state delegate in District 13, said he thought the state could find ways to expand mental health programs efficiently -- for example, by asking current crisis intervention team members to train new teams. "Mental health is a big issue; we need to make sure we're funding it," he said. "We can't play silly politics over this."

Danny Eaton, another Republican running for a delegate seat in District 13, shared his own personal experience managing bipolar disorder. "My experiences inform my decisions," he said. Eaton said he would support expanding crisis intervention teams and also introduced a plan to expand the number of mental health professionals available to treat people in need by funding master's students working towards their license so that they can take patients before they are eligible to receive insurance money for the patient's care.

The general election is Nov. 4.

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