Citizen Voices Need to be Amplified
Mental health is one of the most important aspects of a child’s overall health and wellbeing. According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental illness and substance abuse are a cycle that feeds itself. Children who do not receive treatment for mental health issues can be at risk for abusing substances.
While Florida has the third highest percentage of mentally ill, uninsured people in the country, the state ranks 49 out of the 50 states in spending for the provision of mental health services.
The problem goes well beyond funding. Children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are often not diagnosed early enough, receiving services only when they have already made contact with the system. Meanwhile, when children do receive services, those who have both mental health and substance abuse issues can be given incomplete care that only treats one of the problems in isolation.
Racial Disparities Impact the Treatment and Response to Mental Health Issues
Minority children are exposed to more risk factors — exposure to violence, social disorganization, discrimination, racism, poverty and hunger — that can lead to potential mental health problems. Latinx children in Florida are less likely to have received treatment for mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral issues than their white peers (37.5% to 44%). A study of visits to pediatric ERs found that Black children with mental health diagnosis were more likely to be admitted than their white counterparts (78.4 per 100,000 vs. 51.5), suggesting that they were not receiving the services needed until the situation reached a crisis point. Nationally, white children often receive treatment for mental health complications, while children of color are more likely to enter the juvenile justice system. Florida’s children of color need affordable access to culturally competent mental health services in schools or in their communities.
Voices Impacted By the System Need to Lead the Way
Too much of the conversation about the best path for the mental health system in Florida is dominated by those with direct fiscal impact on the outcome. Florida citizens and families who are directly impacted by mental health and substance abuse issues are absent from the path toward better mental health services. The voices of these individuals who are attempting to access services are vital to helping the state ensure needed services and support systems are available to keep people out of crisis and assist those who are in crisis.
Mental Health Services for Children Are Not Readily Available
Children with mental illness and substance abuse problems often don’t have access to the critical services they need to live a healthy life, succeed in school, and remain out of the justice system. In the past two years, only 58% of Florida children who needed mental health care received services, leaving slightly less than half of children with mental health needs susceptible to the risks associated with untreated illnesses at an already vulnerable period in their lives.
The infusion of mental health dollars into public schools after the Parkland tragedy has provided some progress, but integration of such services with community mental health is inconsistent. The escalating use of the Baker Act to remove at-risk children from school is a major policy failure requiring an immediate fix.
Baker Act Has Become the New School-to-Prison Pipeline
The number of youth Involuntarily Examined (Baker Acted) since 2012 has increased by nearly 70%. In the 2018-2019 school year over 37,000 children received involuntary examinations statewide. There is a significant correlation to the rates of students being arrested in schools, as that number has dropped over 50% in the same period of time.
In Florida, there is no minimum age for a child to be Baker Acted when there is reason to believe that the child is mentally ill. A task force was convened by the legislature to study Involuntary Examination of Minors but problems persist. In 2021 Florida law was changed to require school safety officers to undergo crisis intervention training, and requiring school districts to adopt procedures mandating de-escalation attempts prior to initiating a Baker Act and contacting a healthcare practitioner prior to a Baker Act being initiated. Changes also included increased data collection about the use of Baker Act in schools, and requiring schools to make a reasonable attempt to notify parents before their children were removed to undergo an involuntary examination.
Untreated Issues Lead to Justice System Involvement
According to Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, 65% of the youth in the care of the Department of Juvenile Justice have a mental illness or substance abuse issue. Examined more closely, the data shows that 32.9% of all youth in custody have a history of mental health problems and 53.4% are currently using drugs. These numbers are disproportionately higher for girls with 48.8% of girls in custody having a history of mental health issues, and 55.7% abusing substances.
Treating mental health and substance abuse issues before a child enters the justice system could save the state an estimated $53,665 per youth. It would also avoid potentially worsening mental health, as youth may develop trauma and trauma-induced disorders like PTSD that can compound their existing mental health needs.
- Reduce the number of children who are Baker Acted: Training is needed to help identify children who truly need involuntary examinations/emergency mental health services. Parameters need to be in place to ensure all behavioral supports have been exhausted and the child is truly to themselves or others before a Baker Act is utilized. There also should be a minimum age limit.
- Increase investment in quality community mental health and substance abuse treatment programs: Access to services before children and families are in crisis can save the state money in the long run.
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