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Rep. Salzman seeks solutions to mental health in the Panhandle

The Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida aims to help connect people in need to local resources.
Mental Health Task Force of NWFL
WUWF Public Media
The Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida aims to help connect people in need to local resources.

After the first three months of a year-long mental health awareness campaign, the Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida is kicking off quarter number two.

Mental illness and well-being issues are nothing new. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 11% of adults aged 18 and older deal with regular feelings of worry, nervousness, or anxiety. Four and a half percent of adults have regular feelings of depression.

“The Mental Health Task Force was created from an idea where I had just been reaching out to different hospital CEOs and what their take was on the issues with access to care when it comes to mental health in the community,” said state Rep. Michelle Salzman (R–Pensacola).

She adds that one fact revealed was that none of the area’s major hospital officials had sat down and talked collaboratively about mental health. Arrangements were made to bring together leaders from Baptist, Ascension-Sacred Heart, and West Florida hospitals. And it snowballed from there.

“We got them together and as we had conversations, more and more people were asked to be included at the first meeting at the table,” she said. “So by the time the first meeting rolled around, we had 75 invitees and it was just a broad group of folks.”

When the discussion began, they discovered that mental health access was a problem virtually across the board.

“From the courtrooms to the jails and, of course, the prisons, the school districts, the hospitals,” Salzman said. “So the United Way 211 model takes calls from people that are hungry; a lot of those folks have issues with stress and anxiety. And then even the mayor and the sheriff.”

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Those conversations led to the formation of the Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida charged, says Salzman, with creating a blueprint for care from prevention to crisis management to intervention and follow up, among other areas. After setting the blueprint was gathering data from state agencies.

“[The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration], Children and Families, Department of Health — even the governor’s office — trying to get some guidance and some support from the state agencies,” said Salzman. “All of which were very supportive and guiding, but they said, ‘It’s doubtful that you’ll be successful in this model because we’ve tried to do this in other communities.'"

The sticking point, she said, was agencies refused to share information regarding issues that they normally keep under wraps, such as true data and information on patient usage. But they managed to make an end-run around the state.

Florida House
Florida Rep. Michelle Salzman (R-Pensacola)

“We got HDA, a for-profit hospital sharing data with Baptist and Sacred [Heart], which are the nonprofits. And even the methadone clinic is giving us data on usage and patient information, [but] not private information,” Salzman said. “How many come in, how often they come in; so we can draw that picture and actually use that data in the blueprint we created.”

With the first quarter of the project in the books, Salzman says they’re beginning the second quarter with messaging.

“We knew that we could get out there to the community as business leaders, as community leaders, and just say, ‘Listen, it’s OK to not be OK.’ Ask five people today if they’re OK. That was really to try to encourage conversation.”

But Salzman concedes that’s the easy part. The next challenge is battling the stigma that asking for mental health care can carry. But for now, bridging the gap and providing the needed care is for now a bridge too far.

“Because we don’t have to figure out how to get these services whether it be the doctors, or it just be case-management software — or whatever it is,” said Salzman. “But the first part — messaging — we can do now.”

And while the COVID-19 pandemic did not cause the current surge in mental health cases, Salzman says it has exacerbated everything.

“The stress of not having access to food and losing your job; everything has just gone up exponentially as far as stress,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t the cause of the task force, but I do believe that because everything is so heightened, that it did provide a sense of urgency that we really do need to be focused on this.”

More information on mental health and wellness is available on a number of websites. Locally, at mentalhealthtaskforce.org and at cdc.gov.

In part two, we look at providing mental health treatment by, and for, first responders.

This is part one of a four-part series on mental health in Northwest Florida.