Panhandle Students Continue Struggling With Mental Health A Year After Hurricane Michael Hit Florida

Oct 4, 2019

Hurricane Michael came ashore as a Category 5 storm causing devastating damage throughout the Panhandle.
Credit Regan McCarthy

Last year, after Hurricane Michael wrought havoc in the Panhandle, school officials began raising concerns about an emergent mental health crisis among students. Bay County Superintendent Bill Hussfelt said in the first four months following the storm, 70 kids had been involuntarily held for mental health treatment through the Baker Act. But in the first two months of this school year, 50 students have already been institutionally committed. 

Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) represents much of the Panhandle. He is a long-time educator, and says schools across the area suffered major damage during the storm.

"When the wind starts blowing, these elementary students, in particular, start crying."

“There’s not a school that was not impacted in these counties—every single one of them. Jinks junior high school and middle school in Panama City, where I interned, it’s been on the national news more than one time. The gym was just blown away,” Montford says. “If you look at all the schools out there and what happened, that has a long range impact on the students themselves and that brings up the issue of mental health.”

A section of the Jinks Middle School gym is missing after the damaged section from Hurricane Michael was torn down in Panama City, Fla, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019.
Credit AP Photo/David Goldman

Montford says after Michael, even the threat of a storm is stressful for many students.

“Superintendents and teachers and others are saying in many cases, when the wind starts blowing, these elementary students, in particular, start crying. They want their mom or dad to come get them. They want to know if their home will be there,” Montford says.

A Growing Mental Health Crisis

Dona Pilson is the executive director of Rebuild Bay County. She says the number of homeless students in the area skyrocketed following the storm.

“Before the storm, Bay District Schools were looking at about 700 students that were categorized as homeless. After the storm, that number rose quickly to 5,000. This year so far with the surveys that have been collected, we’re looking at about 2,500 students and that’s not even hearing from all the families,” Pilson says.

Pilson links that number to the number of students who are being referred for mental health treatment.

“So far there have been 202 community of care referrals. That’s for mental health services that are beyond what the schools can provide. There have been 50 students so far, this school year so far, that have had the Baker Act applied to them. So we’re seeing a significant increase in our mental health instances because of, directly tied to, the homeless situation of our students,” Pilson says.

A Continuing Housing Crisis

"Some homes have been condemned, but with no other viable options, families remain inside--sometimes without electricity and running water."

Addressing the need for more housing has proven difficult. Kristy Terry is the executive director of the North Florida Inland Long Term Recovery Group and director of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce. She says thousands of people still don’t have adequate housing.

“When I say adequate, I mean living in homes with mold. Holes in roofs with torn tarps that are barely covering the homes. Living areas exposed to rain, bugs, critters. Some homes have been condemned, but with no other viable options, families remain inside—sometimes without electricity and running water,” Terry says.

Terry says part of the problem is that money isn’t flowing to the area fast enough.

"For working parents and their children to have to wait 2-to-3 years to get back into their homes is unreasonable. We can do better."

“Waiting for resources to be appropriated then months to decide how they can be used, then more months for revisions to rules, more time for implementation, then additional time to actually release the funds is taking too long. Then it’s our turn to apply and wait for funding. People cannot wait that long. Businesses cannot wait that long and communities cannot wait that long. For working parents and their children to have to wait 2-to-3 years to get back into their homes is unreasonable. We can do better,” Terry said.

Terry is pushing government officials and organizations to get available funding on the ground more quickly. And she says donations, including time and labor to rebuild homes, are still needed.