How lawmakers are changing mental health, substance abuse treatment in Florida
Something Judge Steve Leifman said in his Miami courtroom made the psychologist standing before him snap.
Those aren't my parents, the psychologist — who had been calm moments earlier — screamed, pointing out the man and the woman in the back of the room who had raised him, sent him off to Harvard and worked to find him the help he needed. My parents died in the Holocaust. Those people were sent by the CIA. They want to kill me.
It was clear that the man needed help, thought Leifman. But under state law, Leifman wasn't empowered to commit him to a facility where he could be treated for a mental illness.
"It was horrifying. This was a full-blown psychotic man," Liefman said. "I had no choice but to release him."
That was 16 years ago. Now, after a series of fits and starts, Florida is finally on the brink of a historic overhaul to mental health and substance abuse treatment that supporters say will better equip the criminal justice system to handle mental illness.
What's more, advocates say, the changes could help people receive treatment earlier, addressing problems before they become more severe and reducing the strain on the state's mental hospitals. Those facilities are in the spotlight after reports by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune exposed them as understaffed and not having enough resources to keep up with demand.
"Hopefully, what it will do is allow people to get services earlier on," said Linda McKinnon, president and CEO of the Central Florida Behavioral Health network and a 30-year veteran of mental health treatment. "The goal is for the front door to be much earlier than the equivalent of having a massive heart attack."
The goal is straightforward: a coordinated system of services for mental illness and substance abuse, so that no matter how someone enters the system, he or she gets the immediate help needed, as well as follow-up services in the future.
"There will be no wrong door," said Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, one of the Legislature's foremost advocates for mental health reform.
To accomplish that, the Legislature passed bills requiring communities to work together, bringing to the table every group that has a role in mental health and substance abuse — health professionals, law enforcement, prisons and jails, juvenile justice agencies, courts and local charities.
The Legislature also expanded options for courts to divert the mentally ill toward treatment and voted to let psychiatric nurses prescribe certain medications, addressing a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists.
But overhauling the system could take a lot of work — and a lot more money.
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