Florida hires mental health coordinator to respond to hurricanes, natural disasters

Darcy Abbott, a longtime official at the state Agency for Health Care Administration and Department of Health, will coordinate several agencies’ mental health responses to disasters and emergencies.
Hurricane Michael, which made landfall in Mexico Beach last year, left wide swaths of destruction across the Florida Panhandle.
Hurricane Michael, which made landfall in Mexico Beach last year, left wide swaths of destruction across the Florida Panhandle. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 16, 2019|Updated Oct. 16, 2019

The Florida Division of Emergency Management is hiring Darcy Abbott, a longtime state health official, as its first mental health coordinator for recovery efforts after hurricanes and other disasters, touting it as the first statewide position of its kind in emergency management in the country.

Abbott, most recently an administrator at the state Agency for Health Care Administration and state Department of Health, was offered the job last week, said state Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz. She is expected to start later this month, he said.

Abbott’s job, which reports to Moskowitz, will involve addressing mental health needs in communities after natural disasters like hurricanes and coordinating mental health services across several of the state’s agencies that deal with behavioral health. It will also include developing a recovery mental health and crisis counseling outreach program for communities most affected by disasters.

The creation of the new position was announced in June as part of a broader mental health effort being touted by First Lady Casey DeSantis, in response to Hurricane Michael’s devastation in the Panhandle last year. Local officials said after the storm that the region needed significantly more help to treat an uptick in mental health issues, particularly among children.

In Bay County, local leaders had said the ballooning crisis had prompted hundreds of schoolchildren to be referred for further mental health care, though the region faces a shortage of providers. In some extreme cases, they reported, students as young as 6 had been examined involuntarily under the Baker Act, and others had attempted suicide on school campuses.

Moskowitz said he was unaware of any similar position at another state emergency management operation in the country, after having conversations with FEMA officials about mental health resources available.

“This is something that I think FEMA and emergency management need to get more and more, that there’s a dramatic impact on mental health, especially when you’re dealing with a major catastrophe,” he said. When neighborhoods are devastated by a disaster, or a traumatic event happens, “there’s a dramatic short term and long term mental health aspect.”

DeSantis, who publicly announced the hiring Monday morning, echoed the sentiment, calling the position “historic.”

Abbott, 62, has long a history in the healthcare workings of state government. A licensed clinical social worker, she received a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and a master’s degree in social work from Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, before moving to Florida to work for the now-defunct Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in 1989 and 1990.

She then spent eight years working for the University of South Florida as a consultant to the Department of Health, where she helped public health responders and victims of Hurricane Andrew, before joining the Department of Children and Families’ Office of Family Safety.

But most of her time in state government has been spent at AHCA, where she spent a decade in its Medicaid behavioral health services program and rose to become the state’s Medicaid administrator in charge of long-term care and behavioral health care.

In 2013, Abbott moved to the state Department of Health as its bureau chief for chronic disease prevention, before returning to AHCA in 2015 to run its Clinical Compliance Monitoring Unit, which evaluates the quality of care in the state’s Medicaid managed-care program, according to the agency’s website.

In addition to her past experience, Moskowitz said there was a second reason he tapped Abbott — though she grew up in the Northeast, Abbott and her family were hit hard by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, which caused flooding across the region, and had to move out of their destroyed home.

“She went through it as a child, in a hurricane that devastated her community,” he said, adding that he felt it gave her the “the empathy that would be necessary to understanding” people she is now being tapped to help.

DEM spokesman Jason Mahon said the new emergency management position drew 48 applicants before Abbott was selected.

One of Abbott’s first tasks will be coordinating the existing mental health recovery effort in the Panhandle, where officials say needs remain acute. The state sent counselors and temporary housing to the region earlier this summer, and installed telehealth portals in every public school in six affected counties — Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Jackson and Liberty counties —to connect children to mental health services.