Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis has heard from troubled teens struggling with depression, anguished homeowners whose dwellings were decimated by Hurricane Michael and first responders trying to remain stoic after horrific disasters.
The “listening sessions” are part of DeSantis’ focus on initiatives to help Florida students, professionals and families cope with mental health problems and substance abuse. As part of those efforts, the First Lady has also launched the “Hope Ambassador” mentorship program aimed at inculcating kindness in schoolchildren by rewarding them for showing compassion to their peers.
DeSantis, 39, assumed the mantle of First Lady after her husband, Ron, was elected in 2018. Casey DeSantis has been a near-constant presence at the Governor’s side and has taken on what appears to be a historically high-profile role within her husband’s administration.
At the same time, as the mother of two toddlers — and expecting a third child in March — she is busy trying to keep the Governor’s mansion safe from little hands with the potential to do big damage.
Here are five questions for Casey DeSantis:
Q: What prompted you to choose mental health as one of your priorities?
DESANTIS: I think it dates back to when the Governor did a mental-health listening session at the Governor’s mansion and it was an opportunity to bring agency heads together, legislators and other people from the community to come in to talk about mental health. And one of the things that really resonated with me was when he said at the end of the listening session, “Hey guys, agency heads, I don’t want you to work in silos.” And I was thinking to myself, we’re in silos? Aren’t we already working together? And you kind of come to find out that that’s not necessarily been true in previous years.
And so, one of the things that I wanted to form with the Hope for Healing campaign was how can we work together within the state agencies to talk about best practices, accountability for spending and accountability for outcomes. How do we work together to collaborate these best practices and replicate them across the state on behalf of the taxpayer, because I think we owe it to them. And then also on behalf of those who are suffering.
We spend $2 billion annually on mental health and substance abuse. So how do we make sure that those funds are being well spent? So that was kind of step one. And then two, I found out that the government isn’t the solution to problems. They are a player in it for sure, but how do we harness other sectors of society? How do we work with our federal partners? How do we work with, more importantly, the communities, right? And that goes beyond just the local government, although they have a big hand in it too. How do we work with the private sector who are doing great things? How do we bring them into the fold to collaborate and work together? How do we work with the faith-based communities? How do we work with the nonprofits and the charities, law enforcement, our first responders and educators and all of the key people in society to be able to work on best practices to help those in the communities?
And I put an emphasis on communities because what works perhaps in Northeast Florida might not necessarily work in Miami, might not necessarily work up in the Panhandle or somewhere else.
So how do you work with those people who understand best the needs on the ground to be able to deliver results? So that’s kind of where Hope for Healing emanated from. Then, even to take it to a third-pronged approach, there are so many wonderful things being done. Do the people of this state, the great people, understand how to be able to find meaningful help? It is a very complicated and sometimes convoluted process to be able to find access to meaningful care.
I would say under this Governor, because of his leadership, but you have your agency heads working together, but you had silos in the local level of people who saw a need within their communities and they are great folks who want to get stuff done and they go and do it. But how do we make sure that we can put all of this stuff (under) one umbrella so that people know where to turn to be able to get that help. So, it’s how do we find the needs that are out there and then meet those with the resources that are available, no matter what sector of society they come from.
Q: There seems to be zero degrees of separation with mental illness and substance abuse. Does having the First Lady of the third-largest state in the nation embrace these issues as her priorities help to eliminate or reduce the sense of shame that people or family members or friends might have and that might keep them from seeking help?
DESANTIS: I hope, I hope that’s the goal. It’s all hope for healing, right? That’s the whole initiative. But I would say there is no shame. Quite the contrary. It’s courageous. I mean, to be able to realize that you have a problem and you want to be able to seek help for it and you want to know how to find meaningful help, and acting upon it — that’s courageous. What we’re doing to try to show people that there is hope out there and that they’re not alone, I think is a huge first step. I think injecting it into the conversation is huge.
The State Board of Education came out over the summer with their mental health five hours (a requirement for students). They proposed to the Department of Education on Dec. 1. Some of the proposals are what they will be implemented in each district across the state, and they’re great. Some of the curriculum that I’ve heard of is just identifying what is mental wellness, what is mental health, what are warning signs and symptoms. Where do you go to seek help, what are the resources available, such as suicide prevention? There’s a substance abuse component of that, but I even think you take it a step back from there. You’re talking about it within the school. So, as we talk more and more about it, that it’s OK to be able to seek help, I think that that’s going to have a profound impact. When I have done listening sessions with students across the state, which I will say some are some of the most powerful listening sessions that I have done, I have found that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to any of this.
Whether it’s access to care for some of these students. Some would like to talk to a school psychologist or a guidance counselor. Some actually like the tele-mental health. They like the separation. They’re used to things like FaceTime. So they might be more comfortable talking in that format. Some would like to not speak to anybody on campus because they’re afraid of what somebody would say. So, there’s all these different avenues, and working within the schools to be able to talk about that, I think is going to be very powerful.
Q: As an integral part of the Governor’s administration, you have assumed perhaps the most active role as First Lady in Florida history. Was that a conscious decision by you and your husband, for you to become this dynamic First Lady?
DESANTIS: First of all, thank you for saying that. I want people to know that I think it goes back to this: When much is given, much is expected. And when I realized very quickly the impact that I could have, hopefully, on the state by just bringing people together to have a conversation, I thought, boy, there’s a lot we can do. And you owe it to the people of the state to be able to get out in whatever capacity you can to be able to do good.
Whether it’s recognizing people for what they’ve done for their communities, whether it’s getting key stakeholders into a room to talk about solutions, whether it’s getting state agency heads together to be able to talk about best practices, if I have the capacity to do that, I cannot sit back and not do that, because I think it really, at the end of the day, it’s about service.
I have a sister who is in the Air Force. She is an officer. She’s a C-17 pilot. She’s now in the reserves. I have a brother-in-law who’s in the Air Force. My father was in the Air Force. My grandfather was in the Coast Guard. And, of course, I have my husband, who is in the Navy, who deployed to Iraq, was part of the Navy SEAL team command staff and served his country quite well. I always look back and I wish I had served the country in some capacity and I didn’t. I kind of regret that a little bit because this country has given me more than I could ever have possibly have imagined. So I see this as a way of giving back and when you have a window — for hopefully eight years — but when you have a window to be able to make a difference, what do you do with it? So if the people of the state expect me to be able to go out and do as much as I can to try to help, then I’m going to make sure that I’m out there as much as I humanly can while I can before the little one comes.
Q: What do you do for fun other than running around after the kids?
DESANTIS: That’s it. That’s all the energy I have left. Once I get done with trying to do things with the government and what-have-you, it’s just chasing two, small — soon to be three — very small children around. That is about as much energy as I have. They get me through the day. One of the funny stories, I don’t think people know this, but right before the State of the State, the night before, my son is going through a sleep regression. He used to sleep through the night, fine, no problems. Put him down at 8, he’ll wake up at 8. But, of course, ever since the holidays, now he’s having a tough time with that. So, there’s the Governor 11:30, midnight, rocking this 22-month-old to sleep (the night before) he’s got one of the biggest speeches. But that’s just life, but that’s also him. I mean, it speaks to his character as a father. He’s just a good guy. He comes home as much as he humanly can to spend as much time with the kids. And we have fun. We really do run around the mansion and try not to destroy anything, because a lot of this is irreplaceable. It’s like the MasterCard commercial — it’s priceless, right? So we don’t want to destroy it. But we have fun.
It’s really very special to him to raise kids in the Governor’s mansion. And it is an honor and a privilege. The other day, Madison, she continuously does this, goes into the state dining room. If you have a chance to go in there, they have this beautiful early 20th-century wallpaper. It’s supposed to be Ponce DeLeon when he landed in St. Augustine. It’s gorgeous. Well, she’s going in there with the crayons to color on the walls, because she loves to color and I’m just thinking, what is Magic Eraser going to do to this? Like, wonderful. So we’re on defense a little bit. Ron would say, now that we have three, we’ve going from man-to-man to zone defense soon here. But yeah, it’s neat.
Q: What was the last book you read, if you have time to read at all?
DESANTIS: I try! I don’t want to get the title wrong, and I’m reading it currently, (a book about) how to work with a strong-willed child. I can’t tell you the author, but it’s great. People think that the Governor runs the schedule. No, it’s Madison. She is an incredibly smart, very tenacious, 3-year-old, very strong-willed. The book is all about giving choices. If you tell her, she probably isn’t going to want to do it. You give her a choice and let her decide. So that’s the book that I’m currently reading is how do I raise a strong-willed child? That’s on my nightstand.
(Who does she take after in that regard?)
A type-A, I think she probably takes after the both of us a little bit. The Governor has an incredible, I want to say it’s eidetic memory. He’s extremely brilliant. He is able to retain, read information, synthesize it and talk about it in a simplistic way, which is not easy. I think she has a lot of his memory skills. You tell her something and she’ll remember it three weeks later and she’ll tell you she’s very bright. But she’s also very strong-willed. She’s a great kid. They both are. We’re working constantly with them to raise them as best we can. But I would say the other book that I read is the “Berenstain Bears.” We read that like every night. We’ve gone from the vacation, now we’re talking about the spooky old tree. So, we’ve got this Berenstain Bears collection that we’re currently going through. So maybe that would be more accurate as the last book I’ve read.