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How to Improve Florida's Mental Health System

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This article represents the opinion of the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times.

The Florida grand jury that investigated the 2018 Parkland school massacre aptly described the state’s mental health system as “a mess.” It was a chilling reminder that Floridians are paying a terrible human price for a failing patchwork of mental health care that doesn’t serve those in need or the taxpayers who fund it.

We therefore look forward to tentative conclusions from a state commission created last year recommending reforms to Florida’s mental health system. It’s too early to tell whether the Republican-led legislature will follow through with the funding and structural changes needed to deliver substantial relief. But since the Florida Supreme Court impane the grand jury to the Governor At the request of Ron DeSantis, the Republican leadership in Tallahassee has a huge interest in improving the system. A significant change could therefore occur.

The Mental Health and Addiction Commission must submit its initial findings to DeSantis and the Legislature by Jan. 1. 1, with a final report expected in September. But as Sam Ogozalek of The Times tells in a recent reportthe commission has sent encouraging signals by focusing on several key areas.

Jail hijacking. Most people with mental illnesses “are often no more dangerous than the general population,” observed Steve Leifman, a Miami-Dade judge and longtime mental health advocate. Yet the criminal justice system has become a dumping ground for those with mental health needs. Miami-Dade Prison, for example, is Florida’s largest mental institution, and taxpayers across Florida spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year warehousing people who need mental health treatment. Florida needs to create more programs to prevent people with mental illness from being arrested in the first place and provide more treatments to prevent them from being arrested again. This should include new training for police to deal with people acting out of anxiety and a pipeline to divert such cases from the courts to mental health providers.

Wider treatment. Florida uses a scheme called “competence restoration” for people diagnosed with mental illness who face low-level misdemeanor or felony charges. The objective is not to restore the long-term health of an accused but to ensure his ability to participate in legal proceedings. It is one of the most myopic and self-defeating approaches to Florida’s handling of the mentally ill; Lower level offenders often have their charges dropped and they are released to deal with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other issues on their own that help bring them back to the attention of law enforcement. Florida needs new strategies for nonviolent offenders, from expanding highly supervised community treatment programs to more intensive, short-term hospital care to help adults reintegrate into society.

Results and expenses. Florida’s decentralized and often chaotic mental health management system makes it difficult to track outcomes, hold providers accountable, and determine whether taxpayers are getting value for money. This siled approach is inefficient and hides gaps that need to be filled to improve the continuum of care. The commission should approve a centralized database that would better help public agencies and private providers determine what works, what doesn’t and other key metrics. Information is essential to making smarter decisions about using Florida’s limited resources. It could also reveal inequities across the state and help identify pilot programs that might serve unique populations or communities. Better results start with better data.

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The value of the work of this commission cannot be overestimated. The council should present lawmakers with a solid package, and state leaders should seize the opportunity to improve the system for all of Florida.

Editorials are the corporate voice of the Tampa Bay Times. Members of the Editorial Board are Editorial Editor Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. To follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinionated news.