Increase Florida state funding for youth mental health

March 29, 2013 

The Florida Legislature's disdain for mental health care -- the state ranks 49th in the country for government spending on this critical service -- stands in stark contrast to Manatee County's enlightened position. The state has slashed funding by more than 30 percent over the past six years but the county picked up the slack on one essential program -- substance abuse and mental health counseling and treatment for children age 5-17.

Last week, Manatee Glens President and CEO Mary Ruiz acquainted a Florida House committee of the clear advantages of the county-funded Community Action Team, a fiscally sound endeavor that should appeal to state budget hawks.

In her presentation to the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, Ruiz explained how the Manatee Glens team system in the treatment of severely emotionally disturbed children achieves success and deserves state funding.

Most significantly, the team approach costs only $67.50 per day per child compared with residential treatment programs costing as much as $350 a day.

But the all-too-often short-sighted Legislature cut off funding in 2009. Manatee County came to the rescue, covering 90 percent of the Community Action Team funding, which averages $792,388 annually. The money comes from the county's Children's Services Dedicated Millage.

Instead of being penny wise and pound foolish, the Legislature should reconsider funding the team approach. The state created the program in the first place, and it has been serving Manatee families since 2005.

This cost effective team strategy helps children who cannot function at home, school or elsewhere in the community.

Counselors are available around the clock for counseling in the family home or school for these children with severe emotional challenges. Coaching for parents and support for siblings is also available.

As Ruiz clarified, child psychiatrists feel the traditional outpatient setting in a crisis center does not serve these particular children well. And 3 percent of the state's youngsters have severe emotional disorders -- a number that must be part of the legislative debate on this matter.

The state already spends an inordinate amount on institutional care, almost half the entire budget for behavioral health. "No other state equals this amount," Ruiz told the House panel.

Most alarming, though, is the answer she provided to committee Chair Matt Hudson, R-Naples, when he asked how the team model might help prevent tragedies with links to mental health disorders -- specifically, the mass shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School in December:

"What happens with serious emotional disturbance that's undetected and untreated is that it gets worse and worse and worse and children get older and older. ... So we are a ticking time bomb."

The Newtown, Conn., massacre triggered a national debate on mental health care and the critical need to bolster services and funding. Every community is vulnerable to tragedy.

In January, Ruiz offered a frightening account about how such an episode was averted here in an interview with Herald crime reporter Elizabeth Johnson:

"We admitted a 16-year-old to our crisis center a few years ago with a shotgun and a plan to shoot up Lakewood Ranch High School. Don't think for a minute that Sandy Hook couldn't happen here in Manatee County. It didn't happen because the sheriff found out about it first and the child got care because he was sick. He was mentally ill."

This community was fortunate then, but what about next time?

During her House presentation, Ruiz pitched the idea that Manatee Glens' Community Action Team could serve as a model for the entire state, and she came out of the meeting "encouraged" about the prospects for funding.

As the Legislature begins working on the state budget next week, mental health care should weigh heavily in the debate -- for both critical treatment and public safety.

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