A welcome regional approach to mental health, substance abuse | Editorial

A new nonprofit that will help provide focus and share the best approaches to deal with these big issues.
Published July 12

Regional issues from economic development to transportation require a regional approach to develop a broad consensus and a united effort toward a common goal. Now a new coalition of health care providers, business leaders and public officials is preparing to embrace that approach to tackle the growing need for mental health services. It is exactly the type of coordinated effort needed to grapple with a difficult challenge faced by communities and families throughout Tampa Bay.

The new regional coalition unveiled last month grew from a conversation at the nonprofit BayCare Health System, where the board of directors urged CEO Tommy Inzina more than a year ago to come up with ways to more aggressively address the need for mental health and substance abuse services. That led to broader conversations with other hospital executives, service providers, public officials and business leaders about how to work together to find and adopt common approaches that would have a larger impact. There are plenty of good-faith efforts now from local school districts, sheriffs and others, but it makes sense to get out of the silos and work together.

The first tangible result of this unified effort is a new nonprofit that will help provide focus and organization. Tentatively called the West Central Florida Mental Wellness Coalition until a snappier name comes up, the organization will have a regional board and is expected to hire an executive director and a small staff. It has commitments of $5 million so far as BayCare matches contributions from organizations such as Advent Health, Florida Blue, HCA, Tampa General and the Clearwater Police Department.

It is painfully obvious that Tampa Bay needs a more aggressive effort to deal with the increasing demand for mental health and substance abuse issues. In Tampa Bay and West Central Florida, an estimated 1 in 6 residents have depression and 1 in 12 have a substance abuse issue. Hospitals report the number of inpatient stays and emergency room visits related to suicide attempts increased 14 percent between 2016 and 2017, and those numbers for drug overdoses rose by 25 percent. Yet Florida ranks near the bottom nationally in access to behavioral health care services.

Fortunately, there is a growing awareness in Tallahassee and throughout Tampa Bay that more human and financial capital has to be invested in efforts to address mental health and substance abuse issues. The Florida Legislature modestly increased spending on mental health programs, and school districts are required to focus more on student mental health following the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

In the Tampa Bay area, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco announced last month he is creating a new unit of deputies and case workers devoted to mental health issues. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri created a similar unit three years ago and has been advocate for steering people with mental health issues toward treatment and away from jail. Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister recently required all deputies to receive 40 hours of training through a crisis intervention program.

Ideally, people coping with depression and other mental health issues should receive help before law enforcement steps in. Public awareness about available services is another issue the new coalition hopes to address. This is another excellent opportunity to create a focused, regional approach to address a regional issue.