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Florida spent $69M on mental health after Parkland but didn’t mention suicide prevention

A Times/Herald review shows that though school districts outlined spending those mental health dollars to hire hundreds of counselors, therapists and other mental health personnel, only a handful of plans explicitly flagged suicide prevention programs as a central focus.

TALLAHASSEE -- When lawmakers gave more than $69 million in mental health to school districts after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, many cast the funding as a way to help prevent future mass shootings and identify troubled students who needed help.

But there was little discussion while crafting the bill — and no mention in the final 105 pages of legislation — that specifically directed schools to consider suicide prevention efforts, the most pressing mental health challenge facing a generation and the second leading cause of death for young people under 35.

As Parkland continues to be rocked by a pair of recent suicides tied to the trauma of last year’s shooting, a Times/Herald review shows that though school districts outlined spending those mental health dollars to hire hundreds of counselors, therapists and other mental health personnel, only a handful of plans explicitly flagged suicide prevention programs as a central focus. Seventeen of the 67 counties’ plans didn’t mention suicide or suicide prevention at all.

That has raised questions about how well-resourced schools are to address existing mental health issues and, in Parkland’s case, combat the widespread trauma that still lingers after last year’s tragedy.

Powerful advocates in Broward County — including former Broward state representative and current state emergency director Jared Moskowitz — have called on lawmakers to more directly address suicide prevention after the deaths in Parkland and revisit last year’s funding. Those calls are also being raised as the House and Senate begin grappling with whether to retain the existing mental health assistance allocation or increase it by more than $30 million, respectively.

At least some legislative leaders are already acknowledging they may need to add to last year’s efforts.

“I think that when you’re in a crisis and you’re in an event, you’re focused on the event and making sure those immediate needs are being met,”said state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who helped shepherd through last year’s Parkland bill and supports additional resources for suicide prevention. “I don’t think you can ever fully anticipate what the ripple and continuing effects are.”

“I think that we’re navigating in a really difficult time,” she added, nodding to a high projected state budget, which is being squeezed by costs like Hurricane Michael recovery. “But we do need to be providing those services.”

$69 million last year

The $69 million package in the Parkland bill last year was doled out to districts and charter schools based on the number of students they have — it was a significant uptick after years of underfunding mental health programs in schools, though several lawmakers and mental health advocates said it was too low. Florida, like the rest of the country, has historically had a shortage of school psychologists and other mental health staffing.

It’s not yet clear exactly how districts have spent all the mental health money allocated to them in last year’s sweeping Parkland legislation: Their first reports documenting how they ended up using the funds are due at the end of September. But school districts were required to submit mental health assistance allocation plans last August to the state Department of Education, outlining planned expenditures.

Those districts, which each received at least $100,000, were required to spend 90 percent of the allocation on direct, evidence-based mental health care services or coordination under the new law. The plans largely outlined the hundreds of staff they hoped to hire — in some cases doubling staff already on hand, but many noted suicide prevention only as part of general trainings provided to educators or staffers in the district. Only a handful explicitly detailed specific prevention programs targeted at lowering rising suicide rates.

Tara Jungersen, an associate professor of counseling at Nova Southeastern University who was deployed to the middle school next to Parkland after last year’s shooting, acknowledged the desire to give flexibility to local workers who “know the culture and know the school” best, but said lawmakers should specifically flag suicide prevention in allocating funds to districts.

“There needs to be more focus on the mental health needs because there’s been a communal trauma,” she said. “It needs to be long-term — some of the stuff is not going to come up until possibly years later for some of these students.”

In Broward, the school district has used most of its more than $6 million allocation to fund 50 mental health professionals, including nurses, family therapists, counselors and social workers, said Tracy Clark, marketing and communications director at Broward County Public Schools. The district has also received $8 million in local referendum money for mental health resources and a $500,000 federal grant for a violence prevention program in the district.

Clark added that the district conducted three staff trainings in July covering warning signs for suicide, risk factors and how to respond, and held one training for parents with a suicide prevention component. The school district, which is currently on spring break, is also working on outreach efforts with local agencies to help parents identify warning signs and connect with their children on the issue.

More resources requested

But the school district and local mental health organizations are pushing for more resources. The district is asking for more general money in its mental health allocation and supports the Senate’s plan to up those resources statewide to $100 million. The Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, the regional managing entity that contracts with the state to oversee mental health care in the county, is asking for $1 million from the Department of Children and Families to provide more trauma treatment and conduct a public awareness campaign encouraging students to seek help.

It received $1 million immediately after the shooting last year to help provide trauma treatment to community members, but Silvia Quintana, the CEO of the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, said those funds expired that June. They received another $500,000 from the local Children’s Services Council, which they are using to help fund some of their community efforts now.

“We need a lot more money — it’s going to take least $1 million to get this thing going,” she said, outlining a campaign to make people more aware and accepting of discussing suicide. “We need to deal with the stigma. I’m concerned we have a lot more coming down the pike.”

Advocates have pointed to a series of challenges that face suicide prevention programs, not least of which is an enduring stigma against talking publicly about needing help. Some have also raised the issue of needing resources to help parents to support and encourage their students to seek treatment as well.

To address suicide risk, local mental health providers have had to work with their own limited funding from the Department of Children and Families, which oversees mental health and substance abuse in the state, said Natalie Kelly, CEO of the Florida Association of Managing Entities.

“For years there has not been adequate funding for suicide prevention,” she said, citing the department’s tendency to narrowly allocate money to responding teams and programs. “We do have some [flexibility]. It’s not just at the level we need.”

Quintana said local groups are already volunteering to work together to provide more potential trauma treatment. But she said the state needs to allocate resources to bolster suicide prevention efforts.

Legislature is discussing

The suicides — and the Parkland community’s alarm — are being raised as the House and Senate are already grappling with whether to retain the existing mental health allocation or increase it. The Senate plan would raise the funding for the mental health allocation to schools to up to $100 million.

Moskowitz, who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas, last weekend called for the Legislature to address the suicides while in session: “Now is the time for the Florida legislature to help. Just like last year. Mental health is a bipartisan issue.”

Some House legislative leaders, including its healthcare and education budget chairs, have said in the last week they are open to increasing mental health funding in some form beyond their current proposal. Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is the chair of the House’s PreK-12 appropriations committee, said he thinks the House is willing to take another look at their education budget, though he cautioned any future increase might not necessarily be a direct result of the recent suicides.

Rep. MaryLynn Magar, R-Tequesta, who chairs the healthcare appropriations committee in the House, also said that negotiations could leave room to expand healthcare money to address suicides.

And House Speaker José Oliva, who is expected to handle the final level of negotiating issues in the budget, said in response to the suicides that he “is supportive of additional resources being allocated toward suicide prevention,” spokesman Fred Piccolo said. “With the budget process in full swing, that presents challenges in moving resources. But the Speaker wants to do everything he can to prevent any more tragic loss of life.”

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this story.