They’re called “deaths of despair.” Besides the rising death toll from the coronavirus itself, Washington’s top mental health czar warned that related deaths from drug overdoses, suicide and alcohol could easily top 150,000. Add to that the predicted spike in intimate partner violence, including spouse and child abuse, and you have a public health crisis that can’t be ignored.
These harsh realities are the compelling reason that federal dollars are flowing into a new public outreach and education campaign through the Florida Department of Children and Families, which has a deadlined RFP to get the work done. That’s so timely and appropriate — a total no-brainer.
While it’s always tempting to snipe snarky comments when governments conduct PR, people struggling with mental health challenges right now truly do need information about coping strategies and direction on where to turn for help.
That’s why a Miami Herald story last weekend about the state’s COVID-related ailing budget predicament was misguided and misfired when it took aim at this very important and needed federally funded public outreach and education campaign. These federal funds have been specifically provided to help Floridians learn how to access mental health assistance and other resources — but those federal dollars can’t be used to spackle a state budget hole.
Sheila Smith, who heads up Broward 2-1-1, welcomes the assistance of the outreach campaign.
“I can’t think of a time in Florida’s recent history when more Floridians needed help of one kind or another,” she said. “Florida’s network of 2-1-1 helplines can connect people to everything from mental health services to food assistance to housing support — but only if they know to call us. Unfortunately, people either don’t know about 2-1-1 or they think it’s only for people with low income.”
And when it comes to mental health services — a cause First Lady Casey DeSantis has championed since moving into the people’s house — the needs are growing by the day.
According to the most recent COVID-19 survey conducted by Sachs Media Group, 75% of Floridians say they’ve experienced new or worsening social or mental health consequences, and 44% say they feel either “very” (16%) or “somewhat” (28%) concerned about their mental health. The portion of respondents who say they’ve experienced depression has more than doubled, up from 14% in March to 29% today.
Hardest hit are young Floridians ages 18-34 and children. Four out of five Florida parents reported that their child has experienced at least one mental health challenge — a number that’s grown steadily since Sachs Media started conducting these surveys as a public service in April.
The funding for this vital and necessary public outreach effort is aimed at helping Floridians cope with increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic and raising awareness and usage of 2-1-1 services. The source of the funding is a grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As SAMHSA head Elinore F. McCance-Katz put it, “Before the pandemic, there were nearly 58 million Americans living with mental and/or substance use disorders, according to our National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The stressors and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic exponentially increase the urgency of connecting individuals to treatment.”
And while some advocates would like to see every dollar go straight into treatment, Floridians who are struggling from COVID stress need to recognize the signs of trouble, they need to know that help is available, and they have to know where to turn to find it. That kind of help has never been more urgent than now if Florida is going to succeed at stopping those deaths of despair.