Experts leading the effort for mental health say there’s an urgent need in Sarasota County

Sarasota County Mental Health Tax

SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Sarasota County officials want to know what residents think about an increase in taxes to pay for mental health services.

In a new survey posted online, officials are asking residents to consider funding a new mental health district for services and programs.

On this day two years ago, a gunman opened fire at a high school in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people.

The man capable of such a devastating act, clearly suffering from a severe mental illness. But even after this and after several more shootings that followed, the experts on the Suncoast said the lack of mental health services is still severe and only getting worse.

Everyone knows the feeling. A cold or flu will send us straight to the doctor for medicine. Our physical illness is treated immediately so we start to feel better.

Yet when it comes to mental health, we aren’t so quick to respond.

“We’re seeing mental health issues in younger and younger children which is very concerning," said Kathryn Shea, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Center for Child and Family Development. "Serious mental health issues. We had a 9-year-old who attempted suicide.”

The Florida Center for Child and Family Development is one of several local organizations leading the effort to address the issue they call urgent.

“I think we have to start getting upstream of these problems," Shea said. "We can’t wait until they’re in crisis or they’re homeless or they’re dead or they kill somebody.”

Suncoast experts said half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14, yet only half of children with a mental health condition receive services.

“Our kids are not ready for kindergarten and the number one reason is not their cognitive functioning, it’s their social emotional functioning," said Shea. "If you can’t attend and you can’t sit still and you can’t stop hitting the kid next to you, you can’t learn.”

Shea leads one of eight organizations that convened to narrow down the most critical services Sarasota County is missing.

Early, Pre-K intervention, child and adult psychiatry, family therapy, access to treatment and residential facilities are just a few they sent to Sarasota County staff, who are now trying to find a way to fund them.

“So we don’t fund any program nearly in it’s entirety,” said Wayne Applebee, senior manager with Sarasota County’s health and human services. "Generally we’re only about a quarter of the funder, so nonprofits trying to provide those services are always searching for additional revenue.”

The new fund Sarasota County Commissioners are considering will be paid for with an increase in resident’s property taxes. But before they make any decisions, they want resident’s opinion in a seven question survey posted on their website.

One of the questions ask if you are willing to pay an increase in taxes for mental health services? If so, how much?

“Regardless of how we address the mental health needs of our citizens, it’s critically important,” said Applebee.

In 2020, staff said Sarasota County will spend just over $9 million from the general fund for mental health services.

Staff said even that is only 25 percent of what the mental health organizations need, since so many of the clients don’t have sufficient health insurance, or any at all.

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