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Mall Shooting Spurs Action on Mental Health Issues

P. Kenneth Burns/WYPR

While probing the shooting at a skate shop in The Mall in Columbia that left two employees and the gunman dead last January, investigators found that the gunman had been seeking help for mental illness while planning the attack. 

Police said in March they found that 19-year-old Darion Aquilar had searched mental health web sites as sites for mass shootings at schools and malls.

That prompted Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to look for money in the budget he was preparing to address mental health needs and prevent violent incidents.  

“It’s all about our efforts to be a caring society that can offer each other the support when we need it so that we can avoid tragedy in whatever form,” he says.

He put $400,000 in the budget the County Council adopted in May for training programs to teach those who interact with young adults on a daily basis and others the early warning signs of mental illness.

The money also pays for an emergency room care coordinator based at Howard County General Hospital and an officer to work with the police department’s civilian mental health coordinator on mental health cases.

The emergency room coordinator is to connect patients who show signs of mental illness with community services before they are released. 

The county will also create a second full-time mobile crisis team to respond to emergency calls along with officers, when needed.

This week, Ulman signed an executive order creating a task force to develop a plan to identify other needs for mental health care and to find money to pay for it.

He says mental health problems can no longer be ignored and that it’s time to help people and reduce the chances for future tragedies.

“We know that there’s no way to prevent every tragedy but we can do better and we can do better across every community in the country.”

Police Chief Bill McMahon says the task force will bring together organizations “that are working this in different ways from different areas” to “make sure people don’t slip through the cracks.”

Sgt. Jennifer Reidy-Hall, head of the police Community Outreach department, says the number of emergency calls for people who are a threat to themselves or others has doubled over the last decade.

“We knew from across the nation there are better ways to deal with persons with mental illness when we encounter them.  And we are encountering them more and more on patrol,” says Reidy-Hall adding the department has been training officers on mental health issues for the last four years.

Rita Dougherty, is a volunteer at several organizations that deal with mental illness.  Her son was diagnosed with early on-set pediatric bi-polar disorder.  

Dougherty hopes the work of the task force will help remove the stigma of mental illness and open access for treatment.

“Now, as we see, most of mental health is a behavior issue,” she says. “ Either you’re outwardly manic or depressed and that you’re so withdrawn, you can’t even get out of bed.”

Members of the mental health task force are expected to be named by the end of June.  They will turn in recommendations to the county by December.