Florida families are calling on the state to fully fund mental health services. Social service agencies say the lack of funding for mental health care and substance abuse means more people incarcerated or living on the streets.
Jacksonville resident Nanette Delage is in Tallahassee talking to legislators about mental health services and criminal justice reform. She said her then 17-year-old son Eric Francis Sandefur was depressed and had been involuntarily hospitalized several times.
“What they tend to do is treat ‘em and street ‘em," she said. "And he wasn’t really getting the help he needed. So he left the house one night and acted out in a really unfortunate way.”
Sandefur is now in prison for stabbing a homeless man.
There’s 20 million people in Florida, but the state is nearly dead last in funding mental health treatment. The Mental Health Association of Central Florida said people who are mentally ill are five times more likely to wind up in jail or prison than a state mental health facility.
Sen. Rene Garcia says the criminal justice system shouldn’t be the first step to addressing mental illness. He helped pass legislation last year that creates a system of state and local agencies to address mental health and substance abuse needs.
“Studies have proven time and time again if we get those individuals into treatment early and keep them on treatment, they will have a meaningful, productive life just like all of us do,” he said.
About a million people could get Medicaid if the state expanded its program, but that's something that’s been rejected by lawmakers. Florida also has about 66,000 uninsured residents with serious mental illness.
But Medicaid coverage doesn’t guarantee access. Rick Marquis said he’s tried to find a public mental institution for his son who was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in 2008. But the state doesn’t have one. The 70-year-old St. Augustine resident says he’s now using his retirement savings for his son’s mental health treatment because counselors won’t accept it. His son lives at home with Marquis and his wife, but he has gotten violent with them before.
“It’s just brutal," he said. "I can’t tell you how brutal this is. Like I said it makes Vietnam look like a walk in the walk. But, it’s worse for him.”
Rep. Carlos Smith said many victims of last year’s Pusle Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando can’t get the mental health care they need.
“They escaped the Pulse Nightclub with their lives only to realize that they had lost some of their closest friends and yet they are uninsured or have limited access to mental services to deal with the post traumatic stress that continues,” he said.
Gov. Rick Scott has budgeted an extra 25 million dollars for mental health and substance abuse treatment for this fiscal year. But Rep. Kathleen Peters said she wants more directed to it. She plans to introduce legislation to draw up to $100 million in federal funding.