Florida's First Lady Looks To Bolster Mental Health Services

May 16, 2019

Seven weeks ago, First Lady Casey DeSantis met with a number of elected officials at the governor’s mansion to discuss ways in which the state could help Floridians get better access to mental-health and substance-abuse services.

The product of that meeting was unveiled Thursday, with the first lady announcing her first major initiative: The Hope for Healing campaign.

“For the first time in the history of this state (we are bringing)] agencies together to better address this issue,” she said. “We are going to take a quick look, a long look really, at where the money is being spent, the nearly $2 billion we are spending statewide on mental health and substance abuse.”

The campaign will pull in resources from the state Department of Education, the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Juvenile Justice to help youths and families avert drug addiction and address mental-health issues.

“We owe it to the taxpayers, to the people who are suffering and to the people who are looking for hope,” DeSantis said.

Part of the campaign will require the distribution of a privately funded Mental Health and Substance Abuse Resource Guide, which will be handed out across the state. There will also be a website: HopeforHealingFl.com.

Helen Ferre, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, would not disclose the names of private donors or how much money has been committed. She said that information will be announced later.

Gov. Ron DeSantis was with the first lady when she made the announcement at Roland Park K-8 Magnet School in Tampa and described her as a “bulldog” on the issue. He also spoke up when a woman in the audience complained about a lack of state funding for mental-health services at schools.

“Our schools continue to be underfunded in the area of mental health, and we are unable to secure enough psychologists, social workers and counselors,” the woman said before being interrupted by the governor.

“What’s your question, ma’am. You are not a member of the press, what is your question? What is your question?” he said. “You don’t get to give a speech. Do you have a question?”

“We need a promise from you that we will see an increase,” the woman responded.

Lawmakers this month passed a $91.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The budget, which has not formally been sent to DeSantis, includes $75 million for mental-health services at schools, a boost from the $64 million given to school districts for the current year.

The money is linked to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a wide-ranging law passed after 17 students and faculty members were killed on Feb. 14, 2018 during a mass shooting at the Parkland school.

The Senate during this year’s legislative session sought to give schools $100 million for mental health services, which amounted to $30 million more than the House’s proposal. Toward the end of the legislative session, legislative leaders reached a compromise on $75 million.

The amount was settled after two survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas attack died by suicide in March.

The state budget also includes other pots of money for mental-health and substance-abuse services, which Casey DeSantis said she and state agency heads will take a close look at to determine if more or less funding is needed.

“If at the end of the day we need more resources, I am going to be one of the first people going to the Legislature to advocate for more funds,” she said.

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