By Carrie Pinkard/WUSF Public Media
In the Tampa Bay area, one in six people suffers from depression. One in twelve has a substance abuse disorder. And there is only one mental health professional for every 700 people in Florida. These are some of the statistics given Thursday to highlight the region’s need for more mental health coverage.
Leaders from organizations around the region gathered in Tampa to discuss a new initiative to address the mental health crisis. They announced that they’re forming a nonprofit called The West Central Florida Mental Wellness Coalition. While BayCare is the company leading the coalition, CEO Tommy Inzina said it will take a community effort for it to succeed. “We’re not in the school systems every day, we’re not dealing with everything law enforcement has to deal with, there’s a lot the business community can do,” said Inzina. “So we had this idea of creating a community coalition.”
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said police officers deal with the mental health crisis first-hand every single day. “Last year we handled 19,283 mental health calls. Approximately 11% of our calls for service are mental health related. We weren’t built for this. But we have to adapt because this is the environment,” he said.
The sheriff went on to say that deputies responded to over 2,000 suicide calls last year. He said one night he was dispatched to a suicidal person’s house and when he got there, the person just wanted someone to talk to.
Mental health is an issue in schools as well, according to Hillsborough County Assistant Superintendent Trayce Brown. “It is nothing for us to think about taking our students to the nurse for a physical ailment, but often times we don’t do the same thing for mental wellness,” she said. Brown said it’s important that schools feel equipped to get students the help they need, and that’s why the school district is joining the coalition.
Barbara Daire, CEO of mental healthcare provider Suncoast Center, Inc. said the coalition is a dream come true for her. “It’s just so wonderful to have everyone really look at this very important issue because we have a lot of unhappiness and a lot of unsettled people in our community,” Daire said. “This has been a lifelong dream of mine. I see that this group is going to be able to raise awareness and break the stigma in a big way across four counties (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Polk). “We could potentially be the model for the rest of the country.”
The West Central Florida Mental Wellness Coalition has three primary goals. They want to start a public awareness campaign to get people educated on the scope of the mental health issue, they want to increase urgent care access for behavioral health, and they want to provide resources for patients seeking mental health help.
The coalition has already raised a little over $5 million toward their goal of $7.5 million that they need to cover operating costs for the first five years.
BayCare is matching any donations given to the coalition. So far, companies like Advent Health, Florida Blue, and Tampa General Hospital have donated. Inzina said that the board for the nonprofit will be representative of all stakeholders. He said he hopes hospital systems, mental health providers, local businesses, law enforcement, and schools will be included. “This is not a BayCare initiative, it’s only going to be as successful as the support we can get.”