ST. PETERSBURG – With the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it’s easy to lose sight of the real issues plaguing communities, friends and family members. One of the main concerns that are cropping up all across the nation is behavioral health, and the Juvenile Welfare Board (JWB) has made it a top priority.
In their yearly summit, which was held Friday, Dec. 16 at the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg College, the JWB discussed the steps that are being taken locally to battle the crisis of substance abuse and mental health issues.
“You have to keep talking and figure out how to get your information out,” said JWB Executive Director Dr. Marcie Biddleman. “We’ve worked diligently, and doing it together we’re going to get places.”
And with a new emphasis on community, the JWB and its partners are setting up committees to discuss how to tackle mental health issues that persist throughout Pinellas County, wreaking havoc on families and essentially the children exposed to parents in crisis.
Rep. Kathleen Peters, Florida House of Representatives has become a strong advocate and an essential ally to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri who is passionate about behavioral health reform.
Rep. Peters, who incidentally once worked at the JWB, toured dozens of prisons and estimates that more than 80 percent of the people entering prison are in need of treatment for addiction. She further stated the data suggests that one in every five adults suffer from some form of mental illness.
That’s more than 43 million people nationwide, and remember that’s only accounting for adults, not children. Some 60 percent of those adults tend not seek treatment and if they do, it is usually decades after their first symptoms. Most self-medicate creating further issues with addiction.
“That’s why this is important,” said Rep. Peters, who informed attendees that signs and symptoms of mental illness start between age 14 and 25. “It is the number one crisis in this country.”
So what is the plan and how will it affect Pinellas County?
In a recent study conducted by the University of South Florida as to what was happening here in Pinellas County, 33 repeat offenders were pinpointed. Every one of them has mental illness, is addicted to drugs and is homeless. It’s estimated the cost of incarceration has cost the Pinellas County taxpayers roughly $2 million a year.
“Jails have become the new mental hospitals,” Rep. Peters said, while sharing that mental illness and substance abuse were completely consuming all the resources in law enforcement, the court system and the jail system.
Local organizations took it to the governor advocating for more money to combat the issue. The Department of Children and Families secretary Mike Carroll was called in to develop a model for mental health services in Florida and to streamline the budget. He was at the summit and shared additional funds weren’t coming until the money being dispersed now to deal with mental illness and substance abuse start showing results.
“We’re never going to have the level of resources we need to fix it,” said Carroll, who has worked in the behavioral health for 25 years. He feels the way to get the biggest bang out of every buck is to collaboratively plan on how the community and essentially the state are going to make the fight more successful.
“Folks need the right services at the right time. These issues aren’t going to go away,” he said.
President & CEO of Suncoast Center, Inc. Barbara Daire believes the answer lies with the Health and Human Services Leadership Board that consists of three county commissioners, three school board members and three JWB board members. Along with the sheriff, they find ways to involve the community in contributing to solutions to health problems.
So the administrative forum, which is a subgroup of the board consisting of CEO’s of all the human services agencies, divided into two groups. One was to talk about potential ways to solve the issue of the 33 main offenders, and the other was to look at the behavioral health system and retool it. They decided more resources needed to go to early intervention, prevention and education.
“These kind of issues start very early in a family, so the earlier we can get to them the better off we will be,” said Daire.
The other solution was to develop a program to address those same 33 repeat offenders, so $964,000 was set aside to form a unique program consisting of a therapist, a psychiatrist, a nurse, two housing case managers and also a sheriff’s officer. The team works together along with the Suncoast Center and Boley to provide housing to 30 of those individuals draining the county’s resources.
Daire states the key component to reaching them is engagement. Many were removed early on from their homes due to parental substance abuse or were identified with issues in elementary school.
“They fell through the cracks,” said Daire. “Somehow they didn’t get the services they needed or they didn’t follow up.”
The program began in June and after six months all have housing and are receiving therapy services. Only one was arrested and two others were referred to crisis intervention.
“We have significantly changed that system,” said Daire, speaking of the revolving door to the prison.
Other steps being taken include more officers being trained in crisis intervention to prevent deadly force and arrests. Instead Peters encourages officers to refer persons undergoing a psychotic break and to use less confrontational means to get the situation under control.
“We put the money in the budget,” said Rep. Peters, “but that’s not enough. It has to be more than a couple officers and it needs to be accepted.”
Peters also discussed the passing of Senate Bill 12, which requires every county to create access to critical treatment right away and SB 977 that allows nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe medication.
But what she was most passionate about was the Marchman Act in Hillsborough County, which provides for assessment, stabilization and treatment for individuals who are severely impaired due to substance abuse and are refusing voluntary treatment.
In Pinellas County when 911 is called in a crisis, instead of trained professionals assessing the individual, the sheriff’s office assesses them. So in substance abuse cases where the user should be transported to a medical facility for detox and treatment, in counties without the Marchman Act users are taken to jail, charged with a crime and detoxes behind bars.
Daire shared that the commitment has been approved to allocate funds for a Marchman program in Pinellas.
Other organizations spoke of what they were doing to bring the community together, but the overall message was clear: the only way to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness is to start talking about it, educate the public with the signs and symptoms and implement productive programs to prevent the pipeline to prison.