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Widower fights for mental health reforms

Newtown deaths prompt crusade

HARTFORD — The school psychologist at Sandy Hook Elementary, Mary Sherlach, would often come home frustrated with an overwhelming workload due to budget cuts and paperwork from mounting regulations, her widower says.

Following her death in the December shooting at the Newtown school, Bill Sherlach is dedicating himself to raising money for agencies that provide mental health services to young people. He said he has no idea whether a lack of mental health care contributed to the shooting, but he believes more services could help prevent future massacres.

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‘‘If we can keep one potential shooter from getting to the point where this one got to, all that money would be worth it,’’ he said.

Mary Sherlach, who had worked at Sandy Hook for 18 years, was one of six adults killed in the massacre that also claimed the lives of 20 first-graders. Bill Sherlach said he does not know whether she knew or treated Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman, who attended Sandy Hook as a child.

Mary Sherlach was killed when she confronted the gunman in the school hallway after he entered the building. Her husband said he believes she knew that delaying him, even for seconds, would save lives.

He said he raced to get to the school from his office in Fairfield after he heard reports of a shooting at the school.

‘‘I’m screaming up the highway going 85 miles per hour, and as I’m going up there, I know she’s in the middle of it, whatever it is I know she’s in the middle of it,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s just the way she is.’’

He said he wants to dedicate himself to the issue of young people’s mental health to honor his wife. He is working with the Fairfield County Community Foundation to raise money for agencies that provide mental health services to children and young teens.

He said his wife felt there were not enough resources in the field.

‘‘The most frustrating part to her was not being able to deliver what she knew she had to deliver to these kids because of being pulled in 25 other directions,’’ he said.

Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old autistic son Dylan died in the shooting, said they moved to the Sandy Hook section of Newtown in part because of the mental health services the school and Mary Sherlach offered her son.

She said Sherlach was a dedicated and wonderful professional, but more needs to be done to educate people about mental health issues, including autism.

Bill Sherlach said he believes a shortage of programs to treat young people and a stigma associated with receiving mental health care create a problem that could lead to future tragedies.

He said he is not ashamed to say that he has been receiving mental-health counseling in the aftermath of the shooting. One of the issues he is working through, he said, is his inability to forgive Lanza.

‘‘I haven’t gotten there yet,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t know if Mary would. I know she would have said that if something could have been done to prevent this from happening, whether it was increased treatment or intervention by the general medical world itself, it can’t be that someone like this slips through the cracks.’’

He said mental health reforms are not a cure-all to prevent mass shootings, and attention is also needed on guns and cultural issues.

‘‘This unfortunate situation hopefully will result in a time when we can say, ‘Oh yeah, well that was pre-Sandy Hook,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘We need to touch on all of these things, and mental health is one of them.’’

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