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Residents play a role in the Northwest region's mental health

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The second quarter of the Mental Health Task Force involves “Take Five.” Organizer and state Rep. Michelle Salzman (R-Pensacola) said the program is aimed at providing the care needed to bridge the mental health gap. And it doesn’t have to be anything elaborate.

“Take five minutes— whether it be (to) meditate or go for a walk, or whatever; even the larger employers are sharing this ‘Take Five’ to kind of give people permission,” Salzman said. “It’s OK if you need to get up from your desk and go for a quick walk or a drink of water or whatever it is you need to do to actually ground yourself again and take those few minutes for yourself.”

Mental health, obviously, is also a health care issue. And the area’s major medical centers are working with the task force in developing new treatments and tweaking existing ones. As with many other things, COVID-19 is speeding up the process.

“What we have seen here in this community is not unlike other communities across the country,” said Mark Faulkner, president, and CEO of Baptist Healthcare.

“And that is, what was a prevalent issue in terms of community behavioral health issues — and emotional wellness — has been accelerated by the pandemic,” he said. “And it’s certainly manifesting itself in our clinics, in our offices, in our [emergency rooms], and in our in-patient facilities as well.”

With Children’s Hospital, Sacred Heart provides care from cradle to grave. In the mental health area, Faulkner was asked if there’s anyone age group that’s tougher to address.

“They’re all equally challenging, and they’re as challenging on the behavioral side as we see on the acute side,” he said. “When we see a patient suffer from cancer or heart disease, there’s suffering going on. It’s no different on the behavioral health side, dealing with wellness issues.

Another challenge is, if they don’t come in, you can’t treat them.

“If there are barriers to access and funding sources, we need to look at all of those things,” Faulkner said. “And that’s what this task force is doing — what are the barriers?”

Mental health concerns in health care form a gate that swings both ways — the challenges of taking care of the patients and taking care of the caretakers. One recent trend is an increase in the number of violent incidents involving caregivers in a number of settings.

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One of the Take 5 reminders from Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida.

“And that’s certainly something that we just can’t allow to happen; we’re certainly going to be mindful of the wellness and safety of our staff,” said Faulkner. “We all have to remember that what we’re seeing when that manifests itself, is a symptom of something much deeper — that there are underlying causes that we need to get to the root of.”

Baptist, along with other stakeholders, has a role in convening and assembling the yearlong Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida, which is entering its second quarter.

“And we’re doing a gap analysis to understand the strengths of the community and where are the gaps,” said Faulkner. “To do some strategic planning and how can all the stakeholders throughout the community play a part in improving the overall health care delivery for emotional and mental health. And we’re just getting started.”

“As a large employer, as a health care provider, we needed to be with others in the community talking about mental health, particularly post-pandemic — now world events going on — it’s important to be at the table,” said Dawn Rudolph, president/CEO at Ascension-Sacred Heart Hospital.

Their involvement involves both the main hospital and Studer Family Children’s Hospital. The task force’s meetings, she adds, have been major learning experiences, moving through the various definitions of mental health and wellness.

“What level of acuity, clinical diagnosis of behavioral health — all of that really means like, ‘How are we doing?’ Mind, body, soul — like where are we in our current mental health state?”

One issue facing the task force is the historical stigma attached to mental health problems, which have not been on the same level as physical ailments. Rudolph says one goal is getting society to think more intentionally about what resources to dedicate to mental health.

“From situational awareness to clinical pathology around behavioral health, how can we get everyone together?” asked Rudolph. “Government, agencies within the government, the sheriff’s office, the mayor’s office — health care delivery churches — in being able to raise community health and well-being.”

Adding to the existing stress is the loss of friends and loved ones to COVID-19, and ramping that up, says Rudolph, has been an inability to practice the rituals of closure.

“When we think about death and grieving, with the processes that were disrupted at times, certainly people delayed funerals,” said Rudolph. “We have rituals in our life, and so not to be able to access those rituals during the pandemic, you felt like you weren’t honoring, maybe, your loved one in the traditional way.”

Participants in the task force are from both secular and faith-based organizations — Ascension-Sacred Heart and Baptist Health Care among the latter — are expected to develop and offer a smorgasbord of ideas to bring improvements to mental health help.

“I think what Representative Salzman was able to do was create a platform where everyone’s view was appreciated,” said Ascension’s Dawn Rudolph. “And then how can we translate all these ideas into something that could be embraced by our community, so that it would be as inclusive as possible and the diverse ideas might be presented. But at the end of the day, inclusivity and destigmatizing this was a priority.”

When asked about lessons learned from the task force at the end of its run, Rudolph said they haven’t had to wait that long.

“Learnings have already happened; first of all, an awareness of all the different agencies and facilities working on mental health. Just kind of opening up the communities’ ‘treasure chest,’ if you will, of some really stellar options.”

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

This is part three of four in the series on the Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida.