As part of a statewide campaign to increase access to mental health services, First Lady Casey DeSantis announced on Thursday that K-12 students in every public school across six Northwest Florida counties can receive virtual counseling and psychiatric care without ever leaving campus.
About 60 telehealth portals will be ready for public school students in Gulf, Franklin, Jackson, Liberty, Gulf and Bay Counties when they return from summer break on Monday. Several state agencies - including the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Health and the Department of Education - worked together to ensure the mental health devices were installed before the start of the school year, DeSantis said.
“This is not something that we’re doing because we want to feel good about ourselves," she said. "We’re doing this because we ultimately believe this is going to help save lives.”
Through the portals, students can video chat with a mental health professional located anywhere in the state. Bay County’s public schools received 38 portals. Superintendent Bill Husfelt says he’s hopeful students will feel comfortable receiving care through this technology.
“Kids communicate distance-wise now," he said "We think there might be a layer of relaxation that comes because they’re not necessarily in front of someone."
The telehealth technology isn’t new to the district. Many of its elementary schools already have telehealth portals that connect students with primary care physicians, Husfelt said. “We have health techs that get on with a doctor and can communicate back and forth and take the temperature, and the doctor can diagnose and prescribe an antibiotic if they’re sick. This just takes it to the mental health level.”
Housing-related challenges are taking a toll on many parents in the community, and children are also feeling that pressure, increasing the need for mental health treatment in school, Husfelt said.
“We had two elementary kids right before the end of the school year take a razor blade and try to slit their wrists on an elementary school playground. Elementary-aged kids don’t just come up with ideas like that," he said. "They’re hearing and seeing the tragedy and the frustration that’s in their parents’ lives and what’s going on."
Big Bend Community Based Care is the region’s Network Management agency for child welfare, mental health and substance abuse. CEO Mike Waktins says the devices will help reduce missed appointments and bring more providers into communities that need them.
“We struggle to have enough children’s mental health services in any community, whether it’s rural or otherwise. But this will allow us to schedule virtually appointments, regardless of where the therapist is located," Watkins said.
Big Bend will oversee maintenance of the devices and scheduling with providers, Watkins said. “Our commitment is to have a local and regional approach. First of all, we want the jobs in North Florida, that’s number one. Number two is if that child or family needs additional services beyond virtual technology they’re right here on the ground to get them into the next level of care.”
Keiser Family Foundation has identified 183 areas in the state where there aren’t enough mental health service providers to meet the community’s needs. And Mental Health of America, a nonprofit advocacy group, released a report that ranks the state 44th in the nation for access to mental health care.
State Secretary of Health Care Administration Mary Mayhew told reporters yesterday that the portals could help alleviate the burden this places on people struggling with untreated mental illness.
“This is going to be a PILOT to understand what more can we do around the state, and so the opportunity to learn from and to benefit from this initiative here," Mayhew said. "This is going to change not only the lives and the families in this area and this state, but holds promise for so many throughout the state.”
The telehealth portals cost $2 million, which came from funds for the Department of Children and Families. Therapists will bill students' insurance for each virtual session. Students who lack insurance can also receive care through the devices.
In addition to the telehealth portals, school districts in counties recovering from Hurricane Michael will get help with recovery from US Department of Education inspectors, who plan to open an office and Tallahassee soon.