Editorial: Warning signs of a mental health crisis in Florida

Crime scene tape blocks a walkway on Florida Polytechnic University\u2019s 170-acre campus where a student committed suicide on Aug. 2.
JAMES BORCHUCK | Times Crime scene tape blocks a walkway on Florida Polytechnic University\u2019s 170-acre campus where a student committed suicide on Aug. 2.
Published August 7 2018
Updated August 10 2018

They reach from South Florida to Tampa, from a high school to a college campus, from troubled kids to troubled parents. But there is a common thread connecting these tragedies: Florida has a mental health crisis. Addressing it would require spending more public money, providing better access to care and creating better systems for providing care. Ignoring it will result in an even greater public cost in financial and human capital.

Consider these recent disturbing stories:

• In Hillsborough County, Shakayla Denson was charged with murder after she was seen carrying her screaming 4-year-old daughter into the Hillsborough River and leaving her to drown. The autistic girl was non-verbal, and on June 19 child protective investigators received a report expressing concern about Denson’s care for her. An investigator met with Denson, saw her daughter, talked to her sister and neighbors and found "no pattern of violent, impulsive, or concerning behavior.’’

• In Polk County, the only mental health counselor at Florida Polytechnic University was laid off in June, and a month later a student she knew shot and killed himself. The school has hired BayCare to provide mental health services, including a 24/7 hotline and three in-person counseling sessions per student. But the Times’ Claire McNeill reports there will no longer be a full-time, on-campus counselor.

• In Broward County, a school district consultant found Nikolas Cruz, the shooter in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, had a long history of behavorial issues and needed special education services since he was 3 years old. Yet the South Florida Sun-Sentinel revealed the consultant found the school district treated Cruz like a general education student for his final two years. School officials misstated Cruz’s options when he was removed from Douglas High his junior year, which prompted him to refuse special education services. When he asked to return to a different school for special education students, the district "did not follow through.’’ Three days after he was forced to withdraw from Douglas High, Cruz bought an AR-15 rifle. A year after that, he returned to the school and killed 17.

• In Hillsborough County, the Times’ Anastasia Dawson reports at least 19 inmates died in county jail since 2016 and at least 42 died over the last decade. Zarah Jackson, 62, died in February 2017 after he shouted profanities and made threats and was physically restrained by sheriff’s officers. Jackson had a history of mental illness. There also were two reported inmate suicides in 2016.

For years, Florida has ranked near the bottom in state spending on mental health. The Legislature made a modest investment in mental health services at schools this spring in its response to the Douglas High massacre. It added a "red flag" provision that enables police to seek a court order to take away guns from someone who is a danger to themselves or to others. But lawmakers also cut the state prison budget and prompted the Department of Corrections to target millions of cuts in mental health treatment and substance abuse services.

The consequences of a lack of spending and enough robust, coordinated programs for mental health in all sorts of settings stretches beyond the suffering of individuals who need treatment. It’s an economic issue that affects business and productivity. It’s a financial issue for taxpayers, because there are less expensive ways to help people with mental health issues than locking them up. And it’s a societal issue that can affect public schools, universities and other public environments.

There are plenty of warning signs that Florida needs to do far better on mental health. Candidates for offices ranging from governor to the Legislature to school board should explain how they would bring more resources and attention to it.