On Friday, Governor Rick Scott announced his plan for responding to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It includes $50 million in additional funding to expand mental health services for children and youth. The move comes as lawmakers consider the recommendations of a panel they created last year to study the statewide rise in minors being involuntarily examined under the Baker Act.
Nancy Daniels recalls the day her foster son was involuntarily committed.
"He was actually transported by law enforcement from the hospital to the receiving facility," said Daniels, a lobbyist for the Florida Public Defenders Association. Her teenage son was Baker Acted after a breakdown, having previously been misdiagnosed as ADHD.
"Seeing him in a law enforcement car – I wasn't in the car, I was following it, and then being present at the receiving facility…We went into a cold room, a padded room…and it was really tough. He was already suffering with what was later diagnosed with bipolar disease."
Daniels represented the parents of children who'd been evaluated under the Baker Act on the Task Force on the Involuntary Examination of Minors, which was convened last summer. Under state law, an involuntary exam is required if there's reason to believe someone has a mental illness and without treatment, will harm him- or herself or someone else. According to the Department of Children and Families, the number of minors involuntarily examined under the Baker Act increased by 50 percent in the five years following fiscal year 2011-2012. That's why the Legislature created the task force last year, to study the trends and alternatives.
"For three years in row, the number-one concern among superintendents in Florida is the mental health issue," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. He's head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and is also a former high school teacher and principal Montford says the mental health challenges for schools are far greater today than they were 10 or 12 years ago.
"We don't know why," he said. "We've discussed that, the practitioners in the schools… teachers, bus drivers, everybody associated with children – we can't put our finger on exactly why. But we know that there has been an increase in the need for mental health services, and when those services are not provided, then the consequences can be seen. And we know that."
The task force’s findings show 20 percent of kids between 13 and 18 live with a mental health condition, and that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for youths between the ages of 10 and 24. What's more, Daniels said, the panel found children who grew up after 9/11, through the recession and the advent of social media are stressed in ways their elders can barely grasp.
"Pressures on kids these days are enormous compared to what we all went through, my age group – I'm in my 60s," Daniels said. "Of course we had high school peer pressure, competition, all the stuff that you go through in adolescence...But now it's aggravated by social media, the bullying, cyber-bullying that occurs these days."
Daniels says much harder for high schoolers now than it was for her age group – and maybe even for the generation after hers. And she notes that while the task force was created after a 50 percent spike in juvenile Baker Acts between 2011 and 2016, the increase was 86 percent between 2000 and 2016.
The task force didn't identify specific causes for the rise in Baker Acts, citing inadequate data and the complexity of the issue. But it did point to the limited availability of and access to treatment services, whether for prevention, early intervention or follow-up. Montford says without those services, schools must choose between removing students whose behavior prevents others from learning and keeping them on campus without some form of help.
"And the question is: do we have the courage in Florida to say, 'These are expensive solutions, but we're willing to pay for it'?' Montford asked. "And that's where the Florida Legislature comes in. It's a tough question that's got to be answered. And my position is: Yes, in the long run – first of all, it's less expensive if you address the issue up front and help these children. And second of all, morally it's the right thing to do. Period."
Governor Scott has proposed expanding mental health service teams statewide to provide counseling, crisis management and other services. He also called for "direct counseling services to students at every school," saying "every student must have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a mental health professional, and receive ongoing counseling as needed."