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The Youth Mental Health Forum Focuses on Risk Factors, Stress, and Pressure



The Youth Mental Health Forum Focuses on Risk Factors, Stress, and Pressure

The kids in southwest Florida have had a difficult few years. It’s hard for anyone, regardless of age, to ignore the sense of impending doom and gloom in Ian given the COVID-19 virus and a cyclone that destroyed entire communities.

The young people in the area are most affected by these difficulties, which are compounded by the strain of academics, social media pressure, and the potential for school shootings.

The CEO of Naples’ David Lawrence Centers for Behavioral Health, Scott Burgess, concurred.

“We’ve had some collective traumas in our community across the last five years,” Burgess said. “All of those things, I think, are really some of the powder kegs that are driving the mental health challenges for the kids.”

A youth mental health community forum was held by the Naples United Church of Christ to showcase the efforts of local mental health professionals and healthcare players in creating a healthier community.

Collier County Public Schools’ director of special education, Rick Duggan, explained the significance of such activities and outreach initiatives.

“Our community needs to be aware that even in Collier County, one of the safest communities in the country, that we have a significant number of young people that have mental health issues,” Duggan said. “And a lot of times, there are not enough resources.”

The national emergency status of the youth mental health epidemic was announced by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in 2021. In light of the national crisis, Southwest Florida has attempted to do its share to ensure that needs are fulfilled; nonetheless, gaps still need to be filled.

This was mentioned by Rev. Mark Williams when he opened the forum for youth mental health.

“On some days, it feels as though quite frankly, you’re attempting to empty the ocean with an eyedropper,” Williams said.

The persistent problem of mental health care being unavailable is evident when considering Collier County, where the patient-to-provider ratio is at 933:1.

A significant portion of the work being done by local specialists is focused on expanding that availability, whether through facility improvements, provider employment, or other means.

The integrated behavioral health screening offered by the primary care practitioner was described by Jamie Ulmer, CEO and President of Healthcare Network, which was formed in Immokalee. He anticipates statewide change as a result of Healthcare Network’s presence in all 67 Florida counties.

“The doctor identifies through a checklist a behavioral health concern,” Ulmer said. “They either bring someone into that exam room or hand you off to a behavioral health counselor that can begin to address the challenge right there on the spot.”

To assist in providing services, Collier County Public Schools has engaged the services of numerous certified mental health experts, school psychologists, and behavior analysts. Over 80% of the district’s employees have undergone Youth Mental Health First Aid training, which teaches how to recognize signs that a youngster may be in need of assistance.

Duggan stated that this program is intended for much more than simply educators.

“This is also training for the bus drivers, for the cafeteria workers, the school assistants, the front office staff, all of those folks,” Duggan said. “I’m looking for not only signs that someone may be struggling, but also how to get them help.”

Kids’ Minds Matter is another group involved in the juvenile mental health situation in the area. It is run by the Lee Health Foundation and, thanks in part to partnerships with the schools in Lee and Collier counties, has trained more than a thousand people in juvenile mental health first aid.

Jason Sabo, the psychological site lead at Lee Health, commended the organization and its achievements.

“Since Kids’ Minds Matter has gotten involved, they’ve been able to increase the outpatient pediatric mental health visits by 1,546%, which is just absolutely wild,” Sabo said.

While the region is grateful that teenage mental health is being improved, many present and former students have strong opinions regarding the approach public schools are taking in this regard.

Twelve-year-old Ollie Saunders, a student at Collier County Public Schools, believes that the region’s greater conservatism and intolerance of LGBTQ+ children contribute to the youth mental health epidemic in southwest Florida. According to Saunders, the public’s demand and the crisis are the reasons behind the rise in mental health services.

“There’s also been more scrutiny in terms of how faculty and staff should serve students in terms of supporting their mental health in the age of ‘Don’t say Gay’ and similar bills,” Saunders said.

Another identified factor unique to southwest Florida is regional wealth inequality. Certain families lack access to resources and are unable to pay for mental health care, unlike those from richer households.

Senior Rebecca Beaudry at Collier High School believes that there is a lack of awareness about school-based mental health services and that this presents yet another obstacle for children who require assistance.

“I want greater transparency in the systems. I really think that information truly is power,” Beaudry remarked. “And I believe that students’ lack of understanding of how these systems operate is a major contributing factor in their failure as learners.”


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