Millions for mental-health help
Schools finally getting state aid in wake of Parkland
After years of “begging” the Legislature for more resources, Central Florida schools are getting millions of dollars to spend on mental health counselors and services for students this year — a result of the Parkland school shooting that left 17 people dead.
Each district is substantially increasing the number of counselors, social workers or psychologists; training personnel on warning signs; and sometimes offering parents educational sessions on mental health. Some districts are even setting aside money to cover uninsured and under-insured students so they can get additional mental health treatment in the community.
Other districts plan widespread screening of students for mental illness symptoms, much like they do for vision and hearing problems.
“This is what we’ve been begging for,” said Kristine Landry, an educational psychologist and director of student services for Lake County Schools, which is receiving an additional $1,044,000. “I know it’s because of this great tragedy, but if it helps
to bring these mental health services to the schools, we can make those deaths mean something.”
In the years leading up to February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz, 19, had been reported to authorities repeatedly for violent and disturbing behavior — including plans to hurt himself and others.
Florida lawmakers responded to the shooting by quickly passing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, much of which is directed at improving school security and handling threats. But the law also provides $69 million to establish or expand school-based mental health care with an “expectation” that every student in the state will have access to a mental health professional at school this year.
“It’s fantastic,” said Candice Crawford, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, which has lobbied for more state funding for years. “A lot of these children, and especially at-risk kids, tend to end up in the juvenile justice system without ever having been evaluated for mental health issues or given any services. And then people just write them off as bad. The long-term impact of this is going to be remarkable.”
In Orange County alone, the state is providing an additional $4.7 million for mental health services.
The money is paying for an additional 51 professionals, including school psychologists, mental health counselors, behavior analysts and behavior coaches. The district did not respond to a request for comment on the changes, but a copy of its plan states, “All students will receive social-emotional and behavioral curricula. Additional resources, both personnel and training, will provide schools and learning communities with mental health awareness. …”
Previously, the district employed 13 licensed mental health counselors and it had — and continues to have — a contract with the nonprofit Children’s Home Society of Florida to provide additional help.
While only 3 percent of violent crime is committed by people with serious mental illness, supporters of the additional resources say they’ll give schools the chance to intervene before troubled students drop out, overdose or take their own lives.
“I would encourage anybody to get counseling,” said Denniseya Pugh, 19, who graduated in June from Evans High School, where she says mental health therapy helped her heal from years of trauma. “I would always say do it. At the end of the day, if it’s hurting you … speak on it.”
Children’s Home Society has 25 counselors who meet with students in 136 schools in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. More than a quarter of the kids they see suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as Pugh did — the result of long-term physical and emotional abuse.
“At first, they said I had anger issues because I got in a lot of fights,” she said. “But I was just keeping everything to myself, and it was all bottled up. … There was one [point] where I thought life wasn’t worth it.”
Her counselor, Sandra Nonez-Mera, intervened, getting her additional help to stabilize during a personal crisis. In June, Pugh graduated with honors and is now in nursing school on a scholarship.
“We know this kind of intervention can impact the path of a child’s life,” said Elizabeth Lane, coordinator of student services for the school district of Osceola, which is receiving an additional $1.6 million from the state and hiring 16 more mental health providers. “We are heartbroken for the reason this came about, but I am beyond thrilled to be able to provide these services to our students.”
In Seminole, also receiving an additional $1.6 million, the district is hiring 10 mental health professionals. It also will train all personnel on a “Youth Mental Health First Aid” curriculum, form a crisis team to support students and their families, and hold parent education nights on bullying, sexting, sex trafficking and other issues.
Many of the districts have not yet worked out the details of their agendas, and there are still many unanswered questions.
In Lake, for instance, Landry said she’ll be forming a committee to decide how to conduct screening procedures for mental illness — and what will happen with the information collected.
“It’s going to be so important to [discuss] this with parents and community partners,” she said. “I get how sensitive a topic that’s going to be. We have to think about what grades we’re going to recommend, what kind of screener, and then what do we do with that information when we get it back. That’s a huge responsibility.”
Denniseya Pugh, 19, a survivor of childhood trauma, touts the benefits of mental health counseling for teens.
Denniseya Pugh, 19, a survivor of childhood trauma, talks with her crisis counselor from high school, Sandra Nonez-Mera.