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Finding mental health treatment isn't always easy. The Northwest Florida Mental Health Task Force wants to change that

Stephanie Bolinger says she has struggled with mental health issues her entire life. She attempted suicide 11 years ago which left her blind. But she says no one should give up on finding treatment.
Jennie McKeon
WUWF Public Media
Stephanie Bolinger says she has struggled with mental health issues her entire life. She attempted suicide 11 years ago which left her blind. But she says no one should give up on finding treatment.

Work is continuing on a yearlong project to address the various areas of mental health in the Florida Panhandle. This is the first of a four-part update on the work of the Mental Health Task Force of Northwest Florida.

Stephanie Bolinger is 35 years old and has fought depression her entire life.

"(I) became blind 11 years ago from a suicide attempt – a gunshot wound to the head,” she said. “Three years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar-2.”

After starting treatment, she thought she had begun living an upbeat and healthy lifestyle. But it was not actually the case.

“I was drinking my way through life and numbing the pain that I was still feeling until 2019," she explained. “I had a relapse and got really scared of what I might do.”

Her treatment odyssey took her to a pair of mental health facilities, where she was diagnosed with severe depression. She was sent home with medication and did OK for a while. Then she says she “rolled downhill” very quickly. At this point, Bolinger called the Mobile Response Team at the Lakeview Center.

“Between my therapist and my psychiatrist at the time at the Summit Group, they helped to diagnose me with bipolar-2, where there I was put on a mood stabilize,” she said. “But I've been through several different medications because not all of them have completely worked for me. I'm actually a couple of months on a new one now. So far, things are going really well with this one.”

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The Mental Health Task Force has been working this year to develop a blueprint for care, focusing on areas such as prevention, intervention, and crisis management.

“The main goals for the task force has really been the alignment of behavioral health services, particularly mental health services in Pensacola Santa Rosa area, and more seamless access to care,” said Dr. David Josephs, Clinical Director at the Lakeview Center in Pensacola.

Because the work started during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says the focus initially was on humanizing those who may have mental health or substance abuse issues — one bringing on the other.

Dr. David Josephs of Lakeview Center
Lakeview Center
Dr. David Josephs of Lakeview Center

“It could be me, it could be you, it could be our sister, it could be our brother it could be our neighborhood,” said Josephs. “Let's approach it in terms of let's do this better. I think what has come out of it is the willingness of partners to put their shoulders to the grindstone and help in making a better product.”

One of the lessons learned, so far, says Josephs, is from the emergency medical services representatives — sometimes it’s hard, if not impossible, to know just what’s right in front of us.

“The degree to which we have deaths from opiates in this community,” he said. "While we're dealing with that as a health crisis, it's often not seen also as a mental health crisis. A large percentage 70% to 90% of the individuals who have behavioral health issues that require emergency intervention also have significant substance use issues.”

As work has progressed by the task force, Josephs says the meetings have covered a bevy of issues and topics — such as improved ways to take care of the homeless.

“There is a mechanism now of tracking where there are beds or capacity for people to stay overnight and also any emerging issues,” Josephs said. “Of course, one of the more recent ones is the changes in receiving facility availability.”

Very few, if any, stones have gone unturned by the task force. Discussions have been somewhat comprehensive, including talks of a Federally Qualified Health Center, and services to provide a holistic treatment, along with healthcare treatment and behavioral treatment for drugs and alcohol.

“Most everything has been touched on,” he said. “I think now it's the tactics to achieve it. Not that everything falls to money, but a lot of things do fall to money. It is the mechanism of prioritizing that funding and alignment around how we remain focused on outcomes.”

When the task force’s work is complete and the data made public, Josephs says there’s no reason why Escambia and Santa Rosa counties cannot become the model of behavioral health services delivered across Florida.

“Look at our outcomes. Look at what we've done as a community, as we come together to address mental health needs” said Josephs. “Supporting that, doing it smarter, and doing it where it's value added to the people we serve.”

And when all is said and done, Josephs is hoping that the Mental Health Task Force can reach people who need help, and not be scared of seeking it.

“With Lakeview, we have mobile response teams now. We have mobile response teams for homeless individuals that help not be traumatic,” he said. “And that your community leaders believe that this is a priority and have taken steps to afford that for you as taxpayers.”

For Bolinger, she now works as a web accessibility analyst for a Pensacola firm. Her counseling continues but in a less formal setting.

“I have therapy over the phone with my therapist, so she doesn't even look at me either,” Bolinger said with a slight laugh. “So, I just feel like I'm talking to a friend, and I just feel a lot more comfortable that way.”

Earlier this year, Bolinger was a speaker at a Mental Health Symposium at the University of West Florida. She talked about an abusive childhood and inadequate mental health treatment.

“I was in therapy. But it was therapy that was offered to me by the government, and it wasn't very helpful to me,” she said. “The thing was: just not giving up on myself. Even after my suicide attempts, whenever I survived, I realized I was here for a reason. I haven't stopped. I will not stop until I feel like I'm stronger than the disease that I have.”

And for those facing similar crises, she has one word of advice: do your research.

“Become smarter than what goes on inside your head," she said. “Become stronger than that. My main thing was I was never going to let it take control of me. I'm going to be in control of it.”