Kingsessing mass shooting reinforces need for mental health services, experts and advocates say

‘No matter what you look like or where you live, every Pennsylvanian deserves to be safe and feel safe in their community,’ Lt. Gov. Austin Davis said

By: - July 17, 2023 11:07 am

Voffee Jabatec, executive director of ACANA, left, with Josephine Wamah, center, and Jasmine Wamah, sisters of victim Joseph Wamah Jr., appear at Salt and Light Church, where officials and community leaders announced help that is available to address trauma following Monday’s mass shooting (Photo by Abdul R. Sulayman/Philadelphia Tribune).

By Stephen Williams

PHILADELPHIA — Shortly after learning that a man shot seven people in Kingsessing, Consortium Inc.’s mobile crisis units were on the scene to check on the mental health of neighbors and to explain services available for the effects of trauma.

On the July 4th holiday weekend, an accused shooter allegedly opened fire on several people at random, killing five, police said, in one of the worse mass shootings in Philadelphia history. According to friends, the accused shooter had recently appeared to be suffering from some type of mental issues.

“A soon as it broke on the news, a crisis team immediately went to Kingsessing,” said John F. White Jr. Consortium president and chief executive officer. “We went door to door, trying to engage people to make sure they were OK and to remind them that there were services available if the need arose.”

At least three people agreed to seek treatment, he said. The Consortium, which provides mental health services and support, is one of four operators of the city’s mobile mental health crisis teams.

In 2021, 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr., who had a knife, but was suffering a mental breakdown, was shot and killed by police after his family called 911, in a tragedy that forced the city to rethink how the police respond to residents with mental challenges. Wallace had been receiving care at the Consortium.

Both shootings drew national media attention to the mental health crisis in the city and nationwide, along with the subsequent government response.

“The government has a major role to play in supporting access to mental health care,” said Dr. Tami D. Benton, psychiatrist-in-chief at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Another major part of this work is empowering families, communities and young people to have a voice in how their services are developed and administered.”

The expansion of the mobile mental health crisis teams and the 988 emergency phone system introduced in 2022 by the federal government are examples of how the government has responded to the mental health crisis that has been impacted by the pandemic starting in 2019 and the rising gun violence in Philadelphia and the nation.

Today, mental health professionals are embedded with the city’s 911 operators.

“It’s important on two fronts,” White said of the mobile crisis teams. “It’s a quick and effective response to request for help from people who are, or families that are going through a mental health crisis. But the ultimate goal is to prevent another crisis, to intervene in such a way and refer them and get them into the appropriate services once the crisis had been averted.”

After a lawsuit by the Wallace’s family, the city paid it $2.5 million for a wrongful death claim.

Wallace’s death in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic set off protests, but also resulted in police reforms.

For example, in its lawsuit, Wallace’s family urged the police department to consider the use of nonlethal weapons in some cases. Later, on the anniversary of his death, the city announced that every officer would be equipped with Tasers as an option other than deadly force.

Today, the city’s budget for the 2024 fiscal year that began on July 1 includes an additional $3 million in funds that the mayor and City Council agreed to add to the Mental Health Crisis Response Teams, which assist police in responding to 911 calls where mental health problems are indicated. Already, the budget had included $6 million for the teams.

One year ago, U.S. Health and Human Secretary Xavier Becerra visited Philadelphia to kick off 988, the three-digit number that has replaced the 10-digit Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Veterans who call the number can press 1 for mental health professionals with experience dealing the military.

“Too many of us are experiencing suicidal crisis or mental health distress without the support or care that we need,” Becerra said at the time. “Too many of us as parents are worried about our children’s mental health, well-being, and feel they have nowhere to turn. Too many of our families have been devastated by a record-breaking overdose epidemic.”

According to Becerra, more than 1.8 million people in Pennsylvania are living with a mental health condition. The Biden administration invested about $430 million in the 988 system. Of that total, $3.2 million was allocated to Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.

In Gov. Josh Shapiro’s as-yet-unsigned budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year, about $20 million is allocated for mental health services and staffing.

In June, Lt. Gov. Austin Davis visited Philadelphia as part of his “Safer Communities” tour, to promote counseling services for children at recreation centers in North and Northwest sections of the city that have been impacted by gun violence.

It’s part of a $1 million grant to the Center for Families and Relationships, and to expand the “Together Through Trauma Program” from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which is chaired by Davis.

In partnership with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the program offers trauma therapy, staff training and community workshops at six recreation centers and should benefit another 3,000 youth and families.

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“We know that inner-city communities where young people are more traumatized and exposed to adverse circumstances are much more likely to have higher rates of mental health concerns and other issues that come up based on their ZIP codes and their income,” Benton, of CHOP, said. “So it’s going to take a multi-pronged approach and multi-agency approach at the federal and state levels to start to really address these issues.”

Davis’ tour is designed to highlight non-profit violence prevention efforts, such as YEAH Philly in the city’s Southwest section, which provides safe locations for neighborhood young people.

“I’m holding a statewide Safer Communities tour to learn more about violence prevention programs that are working and hear from folks on the ground who are doing this work, day in and day out,” Davis said.

“No matter what you look like or where you live, every Pennsylvanian deserves to be safe and feel safe in their community. We can’t thrive as a commonwealth if we’re not meeting that basic need for safety and security.”

Stephen Williams is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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