Molina Healthcare hosted a virtual panel this week to bring together mental health experts in a discussion of ongoing efforts and initiatives to better serve Floridians.
The panel featured state lawmaker Rep. Sam Garrison, Molina Healthcare of Florida Plan President Mike Jones, Florida Behavioral Health Association President and CEO Melanie Brown-Woofter, Centerstone in Florida CEO Melissa Larkin-Skinner, and Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma.
Panelists cited the effect on collective mental health that natural disasters, such as Hurricane Ian, can bring, further discussing ways in which the state, medical institutions, and providers can work to alleviate ongoing prevalent issues.
Molina Healthcare hosted a virtual panel this week to discuss ways in which providers, community-based organizations, and medical institutions can work together to address mental health issues in Florida.
Journalist Kimberly Moore moderated the event while panelists included Molina Healthcare of Florida Plan President Mike Jones, Florida Behavioral Health Association President and CEO Melanie Brown-Woofter, Centerstone in Florida CEO Melissa Larkin-Skinner, and Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma.
Moore led off the event, stating that statistical evidence shows natural disasters culminate in a higher rate of suicide among those affected by them. She cited a 2020 study conducted by the University of Delaware that examined 281 natural disasters, including hurricanes, that found that the rate of suicide increased by 23 percent compared to before a natural disaster struck.
Moore cited another study that found a nearly fifty percent increase in reported depression among the population directly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“It is a time of unprecedented demand and needs for mental health services,” she said.
According to the U.S. Department of Health, it’s common for individuals and families in and around the affected region to experience distress and anxiety about safety, health, and recovery. Previous exposure to large-scale events, such as a severe hurricane or flood, may place residents and responders who experience a new disaster at greater risk for adverse stress reactions.
Mental health symptoms experienced after a disaster-scale event may include emotional symptoms such as irritability or excessive sadness, cognitive dysfunction, physical symptoms such as headache, stomach pain, or difficulty breathing, behavioral reactions like alcohol consumption, or a failure to adhere to needed physical or psychiatric medication needs.
Larkin-Skinner followed, commenting on the heightened number of individuals in Florida seeking mental health treatment.
“Demand has certainly increased significantly, said Skinner. “There’s the immediate trauma, the acute stress, the loss, the uncertainty of events like the pandemic or a hurricane. With that and all of those challenges … we also see a reduction in stigma. The reduction in stigma has increased tenfold. And that is incredibly important because it helps people become more comfortable with the idea of experiencing stress, trauma, and grief. It makes us more likely to reach out for help.”
Florida still falls short of desired behavioral health standards, however, as Moore reported that in the state of Florida, there is approximately one provider for every 670 people, which falls short of the national target of one provider for every 310 individuals.
Immediately following the landfall of Hurricane Ian last year, First Lady Casey DeSantis announced a Florida Division of Emergency Management website for first responders to help with mental health needs post-hurricane.
The site directs users to a variety of bilingual mental health resource hotlines, including ones specifically tailored for disaster response. Further, hotlines were made available specific to different lines of first responder work including firefighting, law enforcement, and medical responders.
“We’re seeing some real bipartisan leadership on this front, and we’re excited to work with First Lady DeSantis and our colleagues in the Legislature with our partners throughout the state to make Florida not just a leader economically, but a leader in how we cultivate resiliency in terms of behavioral health,” said Rep. Sam Garrison.
A second initiative, the Family Support Line, was established and operated through the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to connect individuals and families who were impacted by Hurricane Ian with peers who were impacted and have recovered from Hurricane Michael.
Moving forward, Brown-Woofter is looking to community partnerships to create a full system of care to address housing support, food insecurity, and outpatient and inpatient care in order to fully support Floridians.
“There are lots of opportunities out there, there is a lot of innovation, and it’s happening in Florida and across the nation,” she said. “I see some changes happening in the right direction.”
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