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Carrie Seidman: An important addition to mental health funding

The Herald-Tribune - 1/30/2020

Jan. 30--Because I have written so often about mental health -- including personally about my son's challenges -- at least once or twice a week I get a phone call from a desperate parent seeking help for an adult child who is spiraling into the danger zone.

"I didn't know who else to call!" they say, listing dead-end efforts to find services and support. The anxiety and concern for their loved one -- not to mention their fear of a potential worst-case scenario -- is evident in their quavering voices. And it never fails to elicit a painful angst of my own.

Because, in at least nine times out of 10, all I can offer is empathy. The "help" they are seeking just doesn't exist.

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The long and troubled evolution of mental health care in this country is well established. Community services and programs that were supposed to create a higher standard of care after the closure of state psychiatric hospitals never materialized, leading to decades of neglect that has fueled our homeless and jail populations, not to mention the suicide rate.

Meanwhile, a state with no personal income tax chooses other priorities for its revenue, cementing Florida's position at the bottom of per capita state mental health spending and leaving improvement up to the private sector and cash-strapped, maxed-out nonprofits.

Last month, the County Commission took a meaningful step toward addressing that deficit by unanimously voting to pursue the establishment of a mental health care tax special district.

Commissioners threw their support behind a countywide district, governed by the commission, which would annually assess a tax and distribute the money raised to local service organizations. They also uniformly agreed, however, that a majority of the county's voters should approve the district through a country referendum.

Within the next week or two, the county will begin circulating a survey to solicit stakeholder and public input, gauging residents' support for the idea and ascertaining areas of greatest need. Additional public hearings would follow the crafting of an ordinance, the language of which would need to be finalized by August in order to make it onto the ballot for this November's general election.

If the referendum passes, the commission would annually set a millage rate and control distribution of the budget to local providers, much as it already does in managing mosquito control. (Last year, for example, homeowners were taxed less than .01 of their property assessment for that purpose, adding about $15 to the bill for a home valued just under $300,000.)

There are widely divergent opinions on exactly what the funding could or should support and whether or not it will replace ad valorem taxes already dedicated to mental health.

Outgoing Commissioner Charles Hines suggested it could be a funding stream for the recently approved pilot program for a jail treatment facility. Commissioner Nancy Detert insisted -- absolutely correctly -- that it should include substance abuse treatment. And Commissioner Al Maio felt a "sunset clause" should be included, to allow termination of the district when it was no longer necessary. (You wish.)

Despite the lack of clarity, P.J. Brooks, chief clinical service officer for First Step/Coastal Behavioral Healthcare, sees the possibility as further confirmation that Sarasota is leading the state in proactive and innovative solutions to persistent community problems.

"With the recognition that this is 'us' and not 'them,' I think our community has become really progressive and supportive of mental health and substance abuse issues," he said. "And it comes from a practical financial standpoint as well. If you recognize that many of the expensive challenges we're facing are directly linked to individuals who have not had adequate access to care and services, it just makes sense."

Ten years ago, when I arrived in Sarasota, I was in the same position as the desperate parents who call me. And I can promise you, the local landscape was even more barren then.

The local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) , which today it offers more support to families and people in recovery than ever in its existence, was nearly defunct. The Academy at Glengary, which provides vocational training for those in recovery looking to return to the workforce, was then but an idea in founder Joan Geyer's mind.

Over the past four years, the "housing first" philosophy adopted by both the city and the county has reduced our homeless population and provided many with access to mental health and substance abuse services for the first time in their lives. The Barancik Foundation's [Here4You]th initiative is making inroads in eliminating gaps and coordinating care for troubled youth. And the school system has begun to recognize its role in caring for students' emotional, as well as academic, needs.

Public support for a mental health care special district is the logical next step in perpetuating that encouraging progression of improvement.

"I can't think of a better time to try to pursue something that makes so much sense -- fiscally, humanely and generationally," said Brooks. "We've got an opportunity here to support our own in a way we've really never done before."

Read more stories by Carrie Seidman

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