HOWARD COUNTY, Md. (WJZ) — Howard County police announced the expansion of the department’s mental health unit.

The announcement comes as the agency recognizes national Mental Illness Awareness Week to help reduce stigma and provide support.

“Police officers are often the first people to make contact with someone in a mental health crisis,” Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner said in a release. “It’s critical that we focus our resources and prepare our officers for these encounters to ensure everyone involved is safe, and then to track these incidents for follow-up.”

The mental health unit currently has two full-time employees: an officer and a civilian certified counselor, known as the mental health liaison.

The department will double its staff to address issues related to police calls for mental health crises, suicides and suicide attempts, and emergency petitions when people are taken to the hospital by police if they are a risk to themselves or someone else.

“Our goal is to prevent people who may be in crisis from hurting themselves or someone else, and to refer them to services that can help them move forward,” said Gardner.

When mental health incidents happen, unit members provide follow-up support for those who have come into contact with the police, along with their family members.

The mental health unit makes referrals and ensures the correct resources are being provided. Their goal is to end the cycle of repeated incidents.

“Throughout the country, we have made it a priority to help those impacted by mental illness,” said County Executive Allan Kittleman. “This expansion of the police department’s mental health unit is just the latest way we are bringing more services and support to the population.”

Howard County police officers and dispatchers go through a specialized 40-hour training to become certified members of Crisis Intervention Teams to more effectively and safely interact with people with mental health issues.

In addition, every new recruit officer receives more than 30 hours of training on mental illness in the police academy. Veteran officers undergo refresher training every three years, including de-escalation techniques, suicide prevention, and reducing stigma.

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