Editorials

Make Florida’s mental health system stronger and a higher priority

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan meets with local mental health officials and law enforcement to address the heroin epidemic in Manatee and Sarasota counties during a roundtable discussion in March in Bradenton.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan meets with local mental health officials and law enforcement to address the heroin epidemic in Manatee and Sarasota counties during a roundtable discussion in March in Bradenton. Bradenton

Mass shootings inspire politicians to stand before cameras, condemn the violence and loss of life, call for improvements in mental health care and stronger preventive controls to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals diagnosed with severe psychological disorders. The latter issue disappears from their radar soon after the publicity subsides, politicians being afraid to tackle any gun restrictions over fears of a voter backlash.

But mental health remains a significant issue that can be addressed. Instead of blaming the deficiencies in the mental health care system for violent tragedies, lawmakers could take action by allocating more resources to an often ignored but critical need. A stronger mental health care system would also boost the work on another deadly concern — suicide.

One individual commits suicide every three hours in Florida. Suicide ranks as the third leading cause of death among youths ages 15-24 and second for ages 25-34. Other age groups rank just outside those figures. In 2014, the latest year statistics are available, 57 people took their own lives in Manatee County.

In the hours after the Jan. 6 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, authorities learned the suspected gunman admitted to Florida authorities that he entered an FBI office in Alaska last November and told agents he was hearing voices and was being forced to fight for the Islamic State terrorist group. He was then taken to a psychiatric facility.

Polls show the majority of Americans agree with the correlation between mass killings and mental illness, which some criminologists and forensic psychiatrists reject.

Gov. Rick Scott’s initial comments connected the mass shooting to mental illness and terrorism. Then, late in January, the governor told reporters that if “someone is adjudicated mentally ill, it just doesn’t make any sense that they should have access to guns.” When pressed for details later, he cited his support for the Second Amendment but said nothing about mental illness — a lost opportunity to beat the drum for behavioral health. Florida does bars some gun purchases over mental illness. As one professor who studies the history of mental conditions wrote, “Insanity becomes the only politically sane place to discuss gun control.”

Polls show the majority of Americans agree with the correlation between mass killings and mental illness, which some criminologists and forensic psychiatrists reject. One such psychiatrist found about 20 percent of mass murderers had serious mental illness. Other reports indicate that up to 60 percent of perpetrators of massacres in this country since 1970 displayed symptoms including acute paranoia, delusions and depression before committing their crimes.

While additional gun restrictions appear unlikely, the mental health care issue can be addressed and has been on a national level. Then-President Obama’s last federal budget put a high priority on access to early intervention mental and behavioral health programs, bolstering the behavioral health workforce and backing suicide prevention programs. His budget also provided an opioid abuse, misuse and overdose initiative to expand access to treatment. Whether these survive President Trump’s massive spending cuts is unknown.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness — NAMI — has reported that since the 2008 Great Recession, states have slashed funding for mental health treatment by a total of nearly $4 billion.

Obama’s focus on suicide prevention should be on Florida’s agenda, too. A 14-year-old Miami girl livestreamed her suicide on Facebook in January. Nakia Venant had been in and out of foster care for more than seven years. She had exhibited dangerous and self-destructive behavior, according to the family attorney, and was sexually abused by another foster child when she was 7. Her mother physically abused her. Nakia was a troubled teen who needed treatment.

The foster care system failed to provide the help she needed, the attorney said. The Florida Department of Children and Families is investigating her death that should have been prevented with intervention.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness — NAMI — has reported that since the 2008 Great Recession, states have slashed funding for mental health treatment by a total of nearly $4 billion. Florida has an abysmal reputation for mental health care spending. Data from National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute reveals the Sunshine State ranked 51st in the nation in 2014.

The state’s mental health care system deteriorated ever since the Florida Department of Children and Families began slashing budgets for the state’s six primary mental health hospitals in 2009. Those misguided cuts reached $100 million with staff reductions in the hundreds.

The funding damage to the state’s entire mental health care system under Gov. Rick Scott includes cuts in services from $737 million to $352 million. Last year, lawmakers finally reversed course and allocated $16 million for mental hospitals and another $42 million to boost community programs that address mental health. But that is a pittance compared to the funding high point in the past.

Communities suffer when access to mental health care is restricted due to a lack of resources. We urge the Legislature to place a high priority on treatment and put the state on a path to an annual infusion of funds to move toward past benefits.

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