In countless ways on a daily basis, Floridians show how much we love our children.
There is certainly no question about that.
But sadly this, too, is also beyond debate: Florida as a state continues to do an abysmal job of transforming its stated love for children into proper funding to help kids who are confronting mental health issues. And the yawning gap between idealistic talk and genuine action is particularly acute across Southwest Florida.
Consider these realities:
- Paul Simeone, vice president of mental and behavioral health for Lee Health in Lee County, noted during a recent meeting of the Fort Myers News-Press’ and Naples Daily News’ Southwest Florida Community Advisory Board that the county lags behind others in providing public funds for children’s behavioral health — while surrounding areas like Hendry County remain massively underserved. “I’m incredibly frustrated,” Simeone said.
- Emad Salman, chief physician executive for Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers, told the advisory board that visits to Golisano’s behavioral health clinic have increased from 1,700 in 2017 to some 9,500 visits last year — and that there is a 500-plus waiting list to see a pediatric psychologist. “We have a huge mental health access issue,” Salman said, adding that because of the state’s traditionally poor approach to funding, “there’s a limit to how much” medical organizations can do for children in Southwest Florida.
- In a recent op-ed for the Herald-Tribune, Barancik Foundation CEO Teri Hansen wrote that over the past year, Sarasota County’s Child Protection Center staff has “treated more children with suicidal ideation . . . than during the previous 10 years” — a shocking spike Hansen linked to the pandemic’s effect on the mental health of local children.
These are just some of the stark facts about mental health and children across Southwest Florida. But what makes them even more daunting is that they exist despite the encouraging progress that’s been made by health organizations to create regional partnerships to address children’s mental health needs.
Simeone and Salman, for example, are key participants in the Kids’ Minds Matter initiative; it’s a network of 29 mental health providers that’s worked in tandem with others to raise $10 million over a five-year period to launch child-related programs — including vital behavioral health screenings — in Lee and Collier counties.
That collaboration is making a real difference in Southwest Florida. But as Simeone and Salman were quick to emphasize during the advisory board session, the mission of safeguarding the mental health of Florida’s children can’t be shouldered by a single group or organization. In truth, much of the heavy lifting must be done by Florida’s lawmakers — and that boils down to them showing the will to provide the appropriate resources for children’s mental health care.
Our lawmakers, for example, should pursue legislation to update the Medicaid reimbursement rates for providing children’s mental health services — the lack of which now makes it difficult for many kids to receive access to care.
Our lawmakers should provide more money to help medical organizations beef up their personnel devoted to child mental health care; as Simeone pointed out, it’s not easy for providers to recruit and retain that workforce because they can’t count on consistent funding to maintain those positions.
Most of all Florida’s lawmakers should simply – and finally – prove that their concern for the mental health of Florida’s children goes beyond empty words and cheap gestures.
It’s past time for the mental health of Florida’s kids to be a priority for our state’s lawmakers — rather than the afterthought it has effectively been for too long.
Roger Brown is the Opinions Editor for the Sarasota Herald Tribune and he’s a member of the Southwest Florida Community Advisory Board. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RBrown_HTOpin.