Forum looks at deficiencies in mental health services


Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell speaks during a community forum on mental health issues at Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville on Thursday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 5:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 5:50 p.m.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell knows firsthand what mental illness is.

Her mother, now 90 years old, started suffering from chronic depression when she was in her 70s. Darnell's mother once attempted suicide and was put under the Baker Act, an involuntary examination, five times. ECT, or electroconvulsive treatment, helped save her mother's life, Darnell told an audience Thursday morning at Trinity United Methodist Church for a community forum on mental health.

"There is no shame in having a mental illness, or having a family member struggle with a mental illness," Darnell said, adding that her mother is also alive today because of the interventions of Shands Vista and Meridian Behavioral Healthcare, which were represented at the forum.

Meridian organized the free public event to start a discussion about the needs, misconceptions and services for people with mental illnesses in the area in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December, and the aftershocks of other violent episodes in their wake.

While Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza had a history of mental illness, details of how that might have contributed to the 20-year-old's shooting spree are unclear, and "mental illness is not a predictor of violence," Meridian CEO Margarita Labarta told the audience, noting that untreated schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, however, can lead to violent behavior.

But unhinging mental illness from that and other stigmas is one of the tasks of community leaders who gathered Thursday.

"Once you've been diagnosed with mental illness, it's like a brand," Labarta said. "That's a shame because the treatments work, and the illnesses are very treatable."

Labarta said treatment efficacy is about 50 percent for bipolar disorder, 60 percent for schizophrenia and 80 percent for depression, compared with 45 percent of heart disease treatments that work.

But a large portion of people with mental illnesses are not getting treated, she added. In Florida, an estimated one in two children and two in five adults who need treatment and meet federal poverty guidelines are not treated. Part of the problem is funding: Florida is 49th for mental health expenditures, spending just $39 per capita annually, well below the national average of $120.

Even nationally, mental health accounts for only 6 percent of health care expenditures, and this low input is costing society — $317 billion to be precise, Labarta said. That figure, from 2002, breaks down the losses into $193 billion for lost earnings, $100 billion for treatments and $24 billion in disability.

"It's costing our society a lot because people aren't able to work," she said.

That's one of the reasons it's necessary to get people of all ages consistent help. Fragmentation of local services is one challenge audience member Karen Slevin brought up. Slevin's 10-year-old nephew has mental health problems and already has been Baker Acted. Various agencies have tried to help, but "for all these services, we're not making any progress," Slevin said.

In the schools, follow-up consultation is a challenge, said William Goodman, supervisor of guidance and student services in Alachua County Public Schools. He added that he would like to see more school counselors, noting that Alachua County elementary schools have a child-counselor ratio of 400 to 1, compared with the recommended ratio of 250 to 1.

However, several programs in the schools aim to ensure "that the environment that children come to every day is the safest possible environment that we can create," Goodman said.

"Speak Up and Be Safe" in elementary schools and "Second Step" in middle schools aim to prevent child abuse and bullying.

Darnell said she hopes the presence of police officers in elementary schools in Alachua County, an initiative that started in January, will help children look to officers as role models and not people to run from. Her goal is also that all police officers are trained in mental health first aid.

Apart from having stepped up protection and access to services, children need to be instilled with a sense of purpose early on so they can develop solid self-esteem, a deterrent to criminal behavior, Darnell said.

"Instead of coddling them, give them a chore and let them know they are good at it," she said.

Mental health problems typically are first diagnosed when kids are 18 or 19, said Jeanna Mastrodicasa, assistant vice president of student affairs at the University of Florida. Last year, a record 10 percent of students sought mental health services, and anxiety has replaced depression as the leading ailment, she added.

"College students are less resilient (than previous college students). They have fewer coping skills," Mastrodicasa said. "We have more demand than our resources allow."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top