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Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, and First Lady Casey DeSantis are raising the alarm on increased substance abuse amid the pandemic. Image via Colin Hackley.

Coronavirus in Florida

Gov. and First Lady elevate substance abuse awareness amid pandemic

According to the CDC, 13% of Americans have started or increased substance use.

COVID-19 is subsiding in Florida, but the First Couple is raising the alarm on another rising health threat.

Florida saw more than 60,000 overdoses last month, up significantly from a year prior, says Gov. Ron DeSantis. Throughout the more than five months since health officials first identified COVID-19 outbreaks in Florida, overdose deaths have increased.

“We’ve got to be able to dig in,” the Governor said. “We’ve got to be able to juggle multiple balls when it comes to health care.”

His administration has made mental health a key issue, spearheaded by First Lady Casey DeSantis.

A month ago, the First Lady made her first public appearance since the pandemic began and since giving birth to their third child. While mental health is multi-faced, and the First Couple has held multiple roundtables on the topic in recent weeks, Wednesday’s panel at Advent Health in Altamonte Springs focused almost entirely on substance abuse.

“This isn’t getting as much coverage as we had hoped,” the First Lady said.

Losing personal interactions, even by mask wearing, has taken away serotonin, which produces happiness in the brain, she said.

Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma said law enforcement and health experts have partnered to combat mental health effects before they lead to more dangerous or criminal behavior.

“If we’re not careful, the narrative of bending the curve and all of these things that we’ve heard for the past six months loses our focus on what lingers around the corner for us tomorrow, and that is an unprecedented substance and mental health crisis,” Lemma said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study on mental health and substance abuse that revealed that more than 25% of people aged 18 to 24 had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days leading up to the late June survey. A similar percentage had increased or started substance use to cope with the pandemic.

That should scare everyone, said Andrae Bailey, CEO of Project Opioid. While he refrained from passing judgment on whether lockdowns were ultimately the right call, he said 2021 could be a frightening year on the mental health front.

Businesses and communities need to do their part to improve mental health, including checking-in on family members and elevating services and treatments for employees.

Beyond young adults, 13% of Americans started or increased substance abuse while 11% seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days.

Gov. DeSantis also toed the line, bemoaning lockdowns.

“You can say that COVID’s the most important thing in the world,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t also look at how that approach is affecting other things.”

While other states and countries issued lockdown orders, Florida’s approach, which was a “safer-at-home” order, mitigated the damage, he claimed. His takeaway from March and April was that masks, social distancing, good hygiene and protecting vulnerable populations are the most effective way to combat the pandemic and limit mental health and economic tolls.

The Governor also hopes to put CARES Act dollars toward mental health. The federal relief dollars can be put toward associated costs that emerge from the pandemic.

But with limited funds, the state faces a trade-off on how to use them.

“We spend all this money on like testing and this and that, and that’s fine,” the Governor said. “But what would probably have more bang for the buck, testing an asymptomatic 22-year-old or putting some of that money towards mental health in schools or fighting some of the substance abuse?”

Written By

Renzo Downey covers the Florida Legislature for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at renzo@floridapolitics.com and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

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