Hernando County is poised to help a new group trying to bolster local mental health services. It is a valuable assist even if the cash-strapped county government says it won't be pitching in financially.
The commission's willingness to sponsor a still-organizing alliance should aid the group as it applies for federal and state grants to better provide mental health programs. Tea partiers asked for and received assurances that no local dollars would be used. Still, the county's blessing — which still requires a formal vote — is welcome considering some individual commissioners' past reluctance to accept federal dollars for imperative projects.
There should be no hesitancy now. The pitch for the alliance grew in significance after the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But the county's limited services and corresponding public misconceptions about mental illness became apparent even earlier — after the October shooting death of a naked woman by off-duty law enforcement officers. At the time, some witnesses acknowledged meeting the naked woman earlier that day, listening to her speak of the Antichrist while holding a crucifix over her head and then documenting the encounter with a cell phone picture rather than calling authorities.
That was just a glimpse of the far-reaching problems here. Disturbing statistics compiled by the state Health Department for Hernando County show a suicide rate nearly 50 percent higher than the Florida average and a domestic violence rate that also tops the state number.
Likewise, a 2010 state survey, the most recent data available, revealed a growing number of Hernando residents disabled by physical, mental or emotional problems; more binge drinking; more people putting off medical visits because of costs; and fewer people satisfied with their lives or considered in good mental health. The problems, unfortunately, are not limited to adults. Hernando has the highest percentage of babies born to prescription drug addicts in Florida and the number of children taken into custody for mental evaluations under the Baker Act is 72 percent higher than the rest of the state.
The alliance of social workers and mental health advocates suggests several responses including crisis intervention training for deputies; a clubhouse where people with severe mental illness could receive job training, schooling and other training; assertive community treatment by eight to 10 professionals, including a psychiatrist, available to work with 80 individuals with severe mental illness; and better services for juveniles including recruiting a child psychiatrist to the county.
Forty hours of training for deputies on dealing with people in mental health crisis includes an estimated price tag of $60,000. It is the most affordable of the initial suggestions and should be the easiest to accomplish. Some of the more ambitious programs, like the assertive community treatment costing as much as $21,000 annually per patient, will require significant coordination and financial assistance.
The task is large, but it shouldn't be discouraged. Turning a blind eye to the growing number of people needing mental health help is not an acceptable alternative. The commission should formally endorse this alliance and offer any assistance it can. That will signal to all that the county understands a community is often judged by how well it takes care of its own.