The 2018 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School prompted a historic statewide effort to improve student mental health. Then-Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature set out to implement a simple but powerful vision – to make Florida a leader in the nation in improving youth mental health. Today, thanks to great leadership, that vision is becoming a reality.
Policies enacted in the wake of the tragedy emphasize the critical importance of awareness. School districts are now required to annually provide a minimum of five hours of instruction to students in grades 6-12 related to youth mental health awareness. And this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis has continued what began in 2018 by signing legislation that requires at least 80 percent of school personnel receive youth mental health awareness training. Florida selected Youth Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) as the program to implement and school personnel across the state are being trained.
As First Lady Casey DeSantis has pointed out, 50 percent of all mental illness begins by age 14. It’s clear we need to reduce stigma and provide our young people and their families with necessary tools and support as soon as the need is evident. First responders, particularly law enforcement, can help play a role. School resource deputies and community policing are the front lines of identifying issues before they become more serious problems.
Most people know to start CPR if we see someone having a heart attack, or at the very least, call 9-1-1. But few of us know how to respond if we see someone exhibiting signs of severe anxiety or depression or experiencing challenges with substance use.
According to the 2021 Florida Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 14 percent of Florida high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide and 9 percent reported a suicide attempt.
But here’s what we also know: suicide is preventable. Spotting the signs that a young person may be struggling and having the confidence to initiate a difficult conversation may just save someone’s life. Law enforcement can play a critical role in building trust to improve the likelihood of these difficult conversations.
The state is appropriately ensuring that Florida school personnel are learning how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. When they have the tools to start a dialogue and direct people to care, more people can get the help they need.
And no one in Florida has to do this alone. First Lady DeSantis has long been a champion of making sure families can access help when they need it. She launched the Hope for Healing Florida campaign to bring together public and private sector partners to help guide families to meaningful help in a timely fashion.
Everyone has a role to play. Each of us must learn to talk about mental health more candidly. When people are struggling, we must treat it like any other medical condition – with compassion and support, with reliable information and resources, and with access to care.
It’s no secret that mental illness robs students of the ability to reach their full potential. That’s why we are reinventing school-based mental-health awareness in Florida and this is just the beginning. Florida is leading the nation by giving our students and families the tools they need to thrive. Together, we are making a difference today for a healthier tomorrow.
Mike Prendergast is the sheriff of Citrus County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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