BROOKSVILLE — Being No. 1 isn't always a good thing, and that certainly is true when your county ranks first in the state in the percentage of babies born addicted to drugs.
Hernando County also has the third-highest suicide rate in the state and far outstrips the state average for the percentage of children involuntarily committed under Florida's Baker Act.
On Tuesday, the Hernando County Commission is slated to talk about one way the county might be able to begin to turn some of those negative statistics around. Commissioners will consider forming a mental health alliance that could give local mental health service providers a means to snag grant money to begin to address specific issues.
The hope is that local schools, law enforcement and government entities would also participate in the alliance "to partner together in a community approach,'' according to material provided for the commission's Tuesday discussion.
In preparation for that discussion, Commissioner Diane Rowden, who asked the commission to consider forming the alliance in the wake of the recent shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, spoke with mental health professionals about some of the early objectives an alliance could target.
David Welch, president of the Hernando County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and a residential counselor at WestBridge Community Services, west of Brooksville, stepped forward with a list similar to the one he presented when he spoke to commissioners on the topic last month.
Special crisis intervention training for Sheriff's Office personnel is one of the top proposals. The 40 hours of training, so deputies would be able to deal with people in a mental health crisis, would cost approximately $60,000.
Welch told commissioners that Hernando lags behind on the training of deputies and that, if everyone were trained, some incidents that have taken place in the county might have had a better outcome.
Another need identified is a clubhouse where those with severe mental illnesses could gather for employment training, programs, activities, community support, education and help in searching for housing. The start-up cost could be about $750,000, with a lower annual cost after that, according to the material provided to the commission.
Welch pointed out that there are similar facilities in surrounding communities.
A Florida assertive community treatment team, or FACT, is also on the wish list. The team would include eight to 10 professionals, including a psychiatrist, who would work with about 80 people who have a severe mental illness but cannot afford a private program.
The team would provide around-the-clock assistance to help with treatment, rehabilitation and support services.
Such a team would likely cost $16,000 to $21,000 per client per year.
With the large number of children in Hernando being held under the Baker Act, another objective for the alliance could be to entice a child psychiatrist into the county by offering a home, salary, benefits and contract.
Currently, parents in Hernando have to take their children elsewhere for such services. Simply keeping the children closer to home would save the county up to $150,000 a year, Welch said last month.
An average of 30 Hernando County children a month are taken into custody under the Baker Act. One recently was just 5 years old. Having the local resources needed to deal with young people with mental health issues would go a long way in reducing the numbers, Welch said.
"I think there is a better way of helping our children" than putting them in handcuffs and sending them to a mental health facility, he said.
Rowden and Welch have been speaking to state and federal officials about the local issues, and Rowden said she also expects a representative from the office of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to attend Tuesday's meeting.
Rowden said she is hopeful the alliance will be a success. In the wake of the Sandy Hook deaths, she said, people want to take steps to avert another tragedy.
"I don't want to talk about guns,'' Rowden said. "We need to talk about an issue that we can do something about.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.