BROOKSVILLE — The state budget signed last week by Gov. Rick Scott includes money for two projects designed to shore up Hernando County's scanty network of services for mentally ill residents.
The Hernando County School District will receive $500,000 to establish project StarFISH, which emphasizes early intervention for elementary and middle school students with mental health and behavior conditions.
Another $250,000 will go for a local Vincent House, a project the local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness has been working on for more than a year.
The house, modeled after a facility that opened 13 years ago in Pinellas Park, would be a refuge for residents suffering from depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It would provide a venue for support groups and counseling. And it would teach work skills with the goal of helping mentally ill residents to return to work.
"Vincent House is a proven model," said David Lambert, the board chairman of Hernando County NAMI and spokesman for the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative.
"It's a great recovery through work program," he said. "It teaches people life skills and gets them employable again."
Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states in mental health funding, said NAMI executive director Joanne Schoch, and Hernando ranks near the bottom of funding for counties in the state.
The appropriation for Vincent House and StarFISH were pushed by lawmakers representing Hernando, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
The county also has been supportive of Vincent House, Lambert said, and helped identify unused county-owned lots that might be suitable for the building. One of the main criteria, he said, is proximity to a bus route because many prospective clients are unable to drive or do not own a car.
NAMI's plans call for a 7,000-square-foot building, with 2,000 feet for NAMI offices and 5,000 for Vincent House.
It will cost a total of more than $1 million, and funding it will come partly from donations, such as the $125,000 raised last year with a "Dancing with the Local Stars" event.
StarFISH, the last four letters of which stands for Facilitating Individual Success and Hope, is based on an earlier program the district ran at West Hernando Middle School, said Judy Everett, the district's supervisor of exceptional student education.
"These are tried-and-true methodologies," she said.
The money will pay for counselors and other mental health professionals to work side by side with teachers, incorporating therapy into education.
The program includes outdoor recreation that gives the students valuable lessons on working together. It also will provide art therapy classes with the therapy part more noticeable to instructors than students.
"To the kids, it just looks like art," Everett said.
The funding will allow for one class at a middle school and two at yet-to-be-determined elementary schools.
The focus is on younger children, Everett said, because the previous project showed that many of the destructive behavior patterns were too deeply ingrained to change by adolescence.
She acknowledged that the program will be expensive to start but that it might eventually be paid for with Medicaid payments. Also, she said, it's cheaper than the long-term alternatives for deeply troubled young people, including, in some cases, institutionalization.
"Our goal is to keep these kids in Hernando and help them graduate and keep them with their families," Everett said, "because that's how I think we get the best outcomes."
Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.