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Reasons For Hope This Mental Health Awareness Month


This article first appeared as a column in the 2024 May issue of South Florida Hospital News

By Mary Mayhew, FHA President and CEO

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Although this commemorative month was established in 1949 to raise awareness of the number of people with mental health conditions and to reduce stigma, its focus is just as needed today, especially as work continues to reduce barriers to timely access to care for a growing number of people.

Florida’s acute care hospitals are strong advocates for a robust behavioral health care system that delivers the right care in the right setting at the right time. Mental health needs do not conveniently happen between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday – our system must be designed and supported to meet people where they are, when they need help, based on delivering quality outcomes and focusing on recovery.

The challenges are big. More than 63 percent of adults with mental illness receive no treatment. Florida has more than 200 federally designated mental health professional shortage areas, which leaves just 21 percent of the need for mental health professionals being met. Drug overdoses and suicides are increasing. Nearly 650,000 Floridians have a serious mental illness, including 1 in 6 homeless individuals.

The effects of unmet behavioral health needs are felt in every aspect of our community life, from schools and workplaces to jails and the courts. About a quarter of people with a serious mental illness have been arrested at some point in their lifetime because their illness, often due to a lack of treatment, leads to behaviors in the community that result in an interaction with local law enforcement, leading to more than 2 million jail bookings annually. High school students with depression are more than twice as likely to drop out of school as their peers. Families are strained and stressed seeking help for loved ones. Employers are seeing ever-increasing numbers of their employees in need of mental health support.

The scope and magnitude of the problem can feel overwhelming. But there is cause for optimism.

With strong leadership from the governor and legislature, there’s meaningful state investment in proven programs and in expanding access to services. During the just-concluded legislative session, there was a notable focus on removing obstacles to timely behavioral health care. The Legislature has made great progress over the last few legislative sessions to propel our mental health system forward in the best interests of all those who depend on it.

More than 50 bills were introduced that focused on bolstering the behavioral health workforce, improving access to the continuum of behavioral health care, and improving the involuntary commitment process.

Among those that passed:

  • HB 7021 makes significant changes to the Baker and Marchman Acts, which have not been modified since their original passage more than 50 years ago. With its many provisions, HB 7021 underscores the need for a person-centered approach to providing flexibility, resources, and support for those with mental illness and substance use disorders. It revises the criteria for involuntary admissions and expands the role and capabilities of behavioral health professionals to streamline the process of involuntary commitments.
  • SB 330 creates a new designation for behavioral health teaching hospitals to train healthcare professionals in evidence-based behavioral health care practices and provide comprehensive services to patients in need.
  • SB 7016 expands mobile response teams to ensure coverage in every county in the state and authorizes clinical psychologists and psychiatric nurses to practice to the fullest extent of their training and education.

In addition to these new laws, the budget appropriates significant new funds to enhance and expand the behavioral health system, including $11.5 million for mobile response teams, $8.3 million for Medicaid reimbursement for primary care and behavioral health providers for services provided under the collaborative care model, and $21.5 million for expansion of community-based behavioral health services.

The many challenges to our behavioral health care system cannot be solved overnight, and much more needs to be done to ensure that every Floridian can access the behavioral health care they need when they need it. It is our moral imperative to collectively work together as a state and in our communities to drive person-centered care at the heart of a modern mental health delivery system.

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