Local children's hospital seeing 66% increase in Baker Acts

Mental health advocates break down ways to address the problem
Posted at 11:55 AM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 11:55:13-05

FORT MYERS, Fla -- Golisano Children's Hospital is seeing a 66% increase in pediatric emergency room patients being placed under Baker Act. This means more kids in our community are attempting suicide and, under the state law, are being committed for psychiatric hospitalization.

Kids’ Minds Matter estimates more than 46,000 children in our community need mental health care. However, one of the biggest problems is that Southwest Florida continues to experience a shortage of providers to get those children the mental health support they need.

According to the VP and Medical Director of Behavioral Health at Lee Health, Southwest Florida was already experiencing a behavioral health epidemic among youth before COVID, which has only worsened things.

“We had sort of the trifecta of difficulties. We had a very serious behavioral health crisis in Southwest Florida before COVID. COVID came and you know with all the social isolation and variety of other stressors, made all of those symptoms worse. And then we've also had layered on top of that an unprecedented amount of social unrest that has increased the level of what I think about as ambient anxiety and stress in the culture. So all of those have coalesced to produce, I thin, the most serious mental health crisis in my career and I'm 63,“ explained Paul Simeone, Ph. D.

He explained there are three critical areas our community needs to focus on to work toward addressing the problem.

One of those areas is community engagement. It’s why Fort Myers High School student Damini Parkhi, who's fighting her own ongoing battle with mental health and who has been through the Baker Act process herself, is working to advocate.

Parkhi has made it her mission to work with organizations like Kids’ Minds Matter to reduce stigma and create awareness regarding mental and behavioral health issues impacting adolescents.

She'll do so later this month during a virtual event called Unmasking the Epidemic. She explained why it's important that our community take action now.

“It is so important because you just never know what your kid is going through. Especially with this pandemic that we're not allowed to be as social as we're used to being. Our only connection is through FaceTime or these video calls or phone calls or texts and it's not the same,” Parkhi explained.Golisano Children’s Hospital said in 2017 it had more than 6,900 pediatric mental health visits.

In 2020, that jumped to more than 16,000.

A licensed clinical social worker at Golisano explained the support system children have lost during the pandemic.

“Before they had a great amount of support system. We had bus drivers that they would talk to and you know people in the administration that they would see in the hallways. We really took for granted that our children have this village that they connected with almost on a daily basis that has now diminished and shrunk in size,” explained Vanessa Reyes Guzman, LCSW, PICU & Peds Medical Social Worker.

She said we can all work to reach out and be there for the children in our lives to let them know they have a safe space and someone to talk to.

Improving access to care, especially for early intervention, is another critical area outlined by Kids' Minds Matter. This includes things like expanding the children’s hospital’s pediatric behavioral health clinics and adding satellite clinics across Southwest Florida. Plus, adding more professionals to decrease the current waitlist for help which can be up to eight weeks.

Lastly, there’s a focus on recruitment. Right now, there's a 750 to one ratio of population to mental health providers in our state. One way they're working to fix this locally is through a partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University, where they’ll offer scholarships to students pursuing a degree in marriage/family counseling and social work with the goal of retaining them post-graduation.