Our Mental Health Crisis Continues

As we mourn and decry the horrific actions from Buffalo and Uvalde, and implore our public leaders to take reasonable action to prevent gun violence and improve funding for mental health, let’s not pretend that Southwest Florida is immune from the horrors of failing to act.

Last week, leaders of Lee Health and Golisano Children’s Hospital held a town hall to discuss the behavioral and mental health challenges facing our youth across Southwest Florida. The numbers are staggering. We approximate over 50,000 youth in the region are suffering some form of mental health challenge, whether that be anxiety, depression, suicidality, schizophrenia, or worse. These symptoms have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the end of a structured school day in the weeks to come further disrupts a fragile environment.

When our society fails to recognize this mental health epidemic and the conditions that produce it, the outlet is too often to resort to violence against themselves or others. Golisano Children’s Hospital saw record numbers of Baker Acts (the involuntary commitment act when it is deemed you are a threat to others or yourself). After increasing by 221% over the past three years, we are projecting serving 1,254 children in 2022, which would be a 36% increase. Every day on average, three youths in Southwest Florida are committed at Golisano alone, and other pediatric facilities in our region such as SalusCare and David Lawrence Center are equally overwhelmed.

Why? The end results of untreated children, adults and families can often be violent or deadly. This is largely because Southwest Florida doesn’t have the adequate infrastructure to deal with mental and behavioral health issues, nor are we facing the cultural dysfunctions that both create and sustain these results at alarming rates. Poverty, inequity, unstable homes, and alienation are but a few of the conditions that produce such distress. To make matters worse, historical underfunding from the government, combined with reluctance from insurance companies to adequately cover services, has led to a shortage in services to the community. Through the generosity of donors to Kids’ Minds Matter, an initiative of the Lee Health Foundation and Golisano Children’s Hospital, pediatric mental health visits have increased 1,800% over the past few years. We are also working very hard through advocacy, education and community partnerships to get at the root causes of our behavioral health crisis.

Unfortunately, the need is growing as fast as our ability to add services. This isn’t Buffalo or Uvalde’s problem, this is right here at home. You have a role in solving the challenge. Take some of our parenting classes, openly share your challenges to help people feel more comfortable with theirs, stay informed, talk to your children, encourage legislative action to encourage our public officials to add more funding for mental health, and support local organizations like Kids’ Minds Matter, SalusCare and David Lawrence who are on the front lines every day fighting for our children.

Saint Augustine said “Pray as though everything depended upon God; work as if everything depended on you.” We can do better together. It’s time to take action!

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Dr. Larry Antonucci is the President and CEO of Lee Health. Dr. Paul Simeone is Vice President and Medical Director for Behavioral & Mental Health at Lee Health.