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Casey DeSantis visits Panhandle to announce mental health aid

The aid will add counselors, telehealth resources and temporary housing to a region that is still struggling to pick up after the Category 5 storm carved a path of destruction through Florida’s northwest.

Florida is sending more mental health aid to the Hurricane Michael-stricken Panhandle nearly nine months after landfall, First Lady Casey DeSantis announced Wednesday morning, after local officials had warned that the region needs significantly more help to treat an uptick in mental health issues.

The aid adds counselors, virtual resources and temporary housing to a region that is still struggling to pick up after the Category 5 storm carved a path of destruction through Florida’s northwest. But the aid, some leaders warned, only begins to address the long-running needs created by Michael’s aftermath.

RELATED COVERAGE: Eight months after Hurricane Michael, many fear a mental health crisis

DeSantis’ announcement Wednesday included a plan to implement telehealth — or access through technology and the Internet to healthcare services — in every public school in five affected counties to connect children to mental health services by the first day of school later this summer. The telehealth initiative is expected to reach 35,000 students in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf and Liberty counties, she said.

It also included $2.3 million that in the past few weeks was funneled to the Department of Children and Families through FEMA, which will increase outreach services and pay for some crisis counselors in an existing community program through 2020. The federal Department of Education has also awarded $1.25 million for Bay County’s school district to add licensed social workers and paraprofessionals to each school campus.

The state Division of Emergency Management, which directs FEMA money to various state and local entities, has secured 100 temporary trailers to distribute to people in need while more permanent housing solutions are found. And, in a nod toward the mental health needs that might be created by future disasters, the division is also creating a new position to specifically deal with mental health response and recovery.

“While our needs are still great and ongoing, we are very grateful for the support we continue to receive,” said Sharon Michalik, the communications director for the school district in Bay County, in a statement. She praised several components of the additional assistance, including the telehealth sites as “another piece of the mental health support puzzle we continue to try to solve for our students and their families.”

“Our needs, however, continue to outweigh the support we have,” she wrote. “We will continue to try to leverage all of the resources possible to serve our children, their families and our employees.”

DeSantis, who has made mental health one of her priorities as first lady, was joined at a fire station in the Panama City suburb of Callaway by Mary Mayhew, the head of the state’s health care agency; Chad Poppell, who runs the Department of Children and Families, and Jared Moskowitz, the state’s emergency management director.

“We’re here, we will be here, we will continue to shine a spotlight on the needs of this area,” promised Mayhew.

In Bay County local leaders have said a ballooning mental health crisis, particularly among children, has been taking root in the destruction left by the storm. Hundreds of schoolchildren have been referred for further mental health care, though the region faces a shortage of providers. Educators have reported children bursting into tears just at the sound of heavy rains and, in some extreme cases, suicide attempts on campus.

Some local providers, already strained, have reported losing 30% to 40% of their staff after the storm. School administrators in Bay had also feared that students on summer break would lack regular contact with staff and educators to check in on their mental well-being, though the district is still providing food through some schools during the summer months and local groups are arranging for summer camps.

The federal education money will help defray some of the costs in Bay County, though the district has previously said it would need about $30 million to put a licensed clinician and a support team on each school campus.