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Florida’s mental health care system ‘a mess’ | Editorial
Statewide grand jury right to call on Legislature to find solutions
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school. A statewide grand jury examining school safety issues has described Florida's mental health care system as "a mess" and called for improvements.
In this Feb. 15, 2018, file photo, law enforcement officers block off the entrance to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., following a deadly shooting at the school. A statewide grand jury examining school safety issues has described Florida's mental health care system as "a mess" and called for improvements. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 24, 2020

The statewide grand jury got it right: Florida’s mental health system is “a mess” — underfunded, disjointed and sorely lacking in scope and scale for the Floridians who need it. This assessment is hardly new, but it reflects gaping holes in the safety net that are increasingly risks to public safety. The report should be a wake-up call for the Legislature to address this festering problem.

The grand jury issued the report Dec. 10 as part of its continuing examination of school safety issues raised in the aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which 17 students and faculty members were killed. The accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, had been treated for mental health issues, but authorities missed a number of red flags because of what critics contend is a patchwork of services that doesn’t ably care for troubled Floridians or society at large.

The grand jury wrote in broad terms about a state mental health system that was plagued by funding, leadership and service deficiencies that “tend to turn up everywhere like bad pennies.” The report describes an ad hoc system across the state, where services are delivered in various fashion by public and private providers alike, in what amounts to a mental health labyrinth that is short on results and accountability.

“This grand jury has received a great deal of evidence and testimony regarding financial deficiencies, conflicts between various agencies over information sharing and privacy, inadequate or inefficient provision of services and a number of other serious problems,” the report notes. The jurors wrote that “it is clear to us that inadequately addressed mental health issues have the peculiar potential to spiral out over time into criminal acts and violent behavior resulting in serious injury and loss of life.” And while acknowledging that the problems were systemic and large, the jurors said “we cannot overstate the importance of addressing these deficiencies.”

The grand jury called on the Legislature to appoint a commission to examine the mental health system in Florida, noting that any worthwhile reforms would require legislative appropriations and perhaps statutory changes to the delivery of care. It suggested that the many players involved be represented on the panel — from law enforcement and school districts to mental health professionals — and that the commission include both insiders who understand Florida’s existing bureaucracy and fresh voices who have creative ideas for reinventing the wheel.

These sorts of commissions are empaneled all too often as stalling tactics by politicians who are uninterested in making the tough decisions themselves. But a task force on mental health would call attention to an issue facing virtually every aspect of society. It could bring government and nonprofits together to renew their sense of mission, and act as a gut-check on disparities in services across the state. A legislatively-appointed panel would also give the Senate president and House speaker a vested interest in producing tangible results. Gov. Ron DeSantis has also made mental health services a priority and would likely be a powerful ally in improving Florida’s continuum of care. Lawmakers should tackle this challenge in the spring’s legislative session.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news