The dismal state of Florida's mental health system is often described in statistics and funding amounts. But behind those figures are human beings and their suffering — adults and children who simply cannot get treatment for psychological disorders, addiction and other problems that only get worse when left unaddressed. The result is suicide, violent crime and broken families. To neglect this gaping need is inhumane, and Florida's leaders must make it a priority even during this tight budget year.
Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano wrote about one family — and there are countless others — whom the system was utterly unequipped to help. Allison and Jeffrey Brown took in their 9-year-old nephew whose mother had died and whose father, Allison's brother, could not care for the boy because of his own mental health and addiction problems. They knew Nicholas was troubled — childhood trauma provides fertile ground for psychological problems to take root. But without the couple, he would have been headed for foster care. With them, he got a loving home, counseling and medication. His problems worsened anyway.
Nicholas acted out sexually, made gestures toward suicide and was rough with his two younger sisters. He was hospitalized four times in the span of six weeks under Florida's Baker Act, which allows people to be committed for up to 72 hours if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. The law has been a lifesaving refuge for many thousands of people in crisis. (Similarly, the Marchman Act provides for the commitment of people at risk of overdosing on harmful substances.) The problem is the lack of services awaiting them when they leave the hospital. In Nicholas' case, once he showed he was not suicidal or delusional, he was discharged back to the Browns, medically stable but still a psychiatric time bomb.
Parents in situations like the Browns' are essentially on their own, with few treatment options available. Not only that, they risk being charged with abandonment if they decide a child is too unstable or violent to bring back home. It amounts to the very opposite of support, which is what these families need. Money and services are the only solutions to this chronic crisis, and Florida is lacking in both. There is simply no substitute for accessible, affordable treatment for mental health problems. Even if money had been no object for the Browns, Allison learned that a $12,000-a-month private center in Orlando had a waiting list. So Nicholas ended up in a group home, where he is getting no help for his mental disorders.
Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, has made mental health a focus. Last year, she helped drive legislation that requires every county to create a localized, coordinated behavioral health care plan that provides immediate access to the right kind of care as well as follow-up services, while emphasizing decriminalization of substance abuse and mental health problems. This year, she has sponsored a bill that would fund those plans. HB 1327 provides budgeted state money to be used as matching funds to draw federal grants. Gov. Rick Scott, in his proposed budget, is seeking a $25 million increase to the annually recurring base budget for mental health and substance abuse. Peters says it should be even more. "We are doing a lot of things," she said, but acknowledged "we've got a long way to go."
Mental illness and, increasingly, addiction are afflictions that leave no population in Florida unscathed. Children like Nicholas, as well as his parents and siblings, cannot navigate the immense challenges of mental illness alone. Accessible, comprehensive treatment beyond hospitalization is the best hope for curbing these problems. Shoring up Florida's chronically underfunded mental health and substance abuse treatment system is a worthy cause that should make it all the way to the governor's desk.