Newtown Tragedy Starts Mental Health Discussion In Florida

Dec 21, 2012

Following the school shooting in Connecticut that left more than 20 children and a number of adults dead, Floridians are taking a close look at their own vulnerability.  Experts have started raising concerns about Florida’s low level of spending for mental health services, and the governor has asked schools to take a look at beefing up their safety plans.

Little is known about Adam Lanza the gunman who killed his mother, before heading to Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut where he shot and killed several teachers, students and eventually himself. Some have suggested the gunman suffered from a mental illness or perhaps Aspergers syndrome. But whether that’s true, what  his exact diagnosis was, whether he sought or received treatment and whether that played at role in the gunman’s actions is unclear. Still, the Newtown tragedy has served as a catalyst for a larger conversation about providing better services for those who are suffering from mental illness, especially in a state like Florida where spending for such services is among the lowest in the country.

“I guess we could say it’s a better place than Texas, which is at 51st. But we have actually in the last couple years fallen a few places, so it’s not a good trend,” said Florida Council for Community Mental Health CEO Bob Sharpe.

Right now Florida ranks 50th in the country for spending on mental health services. And according to the Florida Department of Children and Families, about 47-percent of all children, and 27-percent of all adults in the state need some kind of mental health assistance. Sharpe said there are quite a few changes he’d like to see the state make when it comes to improving the mental health care patients can access in Florida, adding that maybe considering the young age of the victims in the Newtown tragedy there will be enough momentum to make some of the changes. 

“I’m hopeful that this one, the public will finally say, as has been suggested by others that this is enough. We’ve got to do something about this we’ve got to protect our people, our children and we know things that have to be done to do that and it’s just a matter of will,” Sharpe said.

Sharp said the state needs more screening, especially for adolescents and young adults. He said Florida should also make treatment more available and consider legislation that would make it easier to mandate care for some outpatients who refuse to comply with prescribed treatments, like taking prescribed medications. Finally, he said there ought to be some process for getting help to the people who need it. And that’s an idea Ron Honberg from the National Alliance on Mental Illness agrees with.  

“You know, when someone falls down holding their chest, we run right around them. We try to calm them down. We call an ambulance. We do everything we can to help them. When somebody acts strangely we run away from them,” Honber said.

And Governor Rick Scott said the level of mental healthcare that’s available now in the state is something he wants to look into too—though he said right now his thoughts are with the Newtown victims and their families.

“There will be an appropriate time to talk about two issues. I’m talking about the violence that we have and mental illness and make sure that we have the right programs to deal with those. But I think that right now, what we ought to be morning is the loss of life and every life is important, but especially these young children,” Scott said.

Scott has also asked each of the state’s school systems to review their safety plans, looking for places where improvements might be made.

Here in Leon county, Superintendent of Schools, Jackie Pons, is working to ease worried parents minds by stopping by as many elementary schools as he can while parents pick up or drop off their kids. He says he’s carefully reviewing the plans in place for Leon County schools. Though he says he can’t give much detail about what’s in them.

“You want to keep that information at the school level. Every school has a site safety plan. They practice these. They monitor these. But, the last thing you want to do is publish these where everybody can see them because then if somebody did want to do something they’d have access to that important information." Pons said.

Pons said schools across the country are comparing safety plans and learning from one another, but he said implementing some potential changes could require funding—and that would have to come from the legislature.

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