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Mental Health Funding Tied To Florida’s Controversial Gun Legislation

An activist holds up a sign during a rally at the Florida Capitol to address gun control on Feb. 21 in Tallahassee, Fla. (Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

[UPDATED March 8]

A bill passed by the Florida legislature Wednesday has received huge attention because of a controversial provision that would allow some teachers to have guns in schools. But the measure, now headed to the governor’s desk, would also designate an influx of cash for mental health services.

The state has seen three mass shootings in 20 months — at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Fort Lauderdale airport and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. And the need for increased mental health funding has come up twice before — with no cash forthcoming.

In today’s dollars, Florida is spending 40 percent less on mental health than it did in 2000, according to Melanie Brown-Woofter, interim president of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

“That means there are fewer providers or fewer sources that the individuals can access,” she said. And that lack of resources, she and other mental health care providers say, undercuts the ability to catch mental illness early and treat it.

Since 2000, the state has increased funding for mental health services by $218 million. But that hasn’t kept up with inflation and the 4.5 million people who have moved to Florida since then, Brown-Woofter said.

The shooting in Parkland shifted the focus of many people in Florida and nationally to mental health. President Donald Trump and other leaders were quick to label the 19-year-old man who killed 17 people at his former high school mentally ill.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott called for $500 million for school safety, including giving young people more counseling and crisis management.

“Florida is never going to be the same — and we’ve got to make sure Florida is never the same,” Scott said during a recent appearance in Tampa. “We’ve got to make sure we have common-sense solutions to make sure every parent knows that their child is safe.”

The mental health provision is attached to the controversial gun legislation. It raises the age of most firearm purchases to 21, institutes a mandatory three-day waiting period for all firearm purchases and bans the sale of bump stocks, devices that can be attached to a weapon to enable it to fire more quickly.

These provisions are not popular with many in Florida’s legislature, where conservatives have opposed any restrictions on gun ownership in the past. On the Democratic side of the aisle, there was opposition to the provision allowing guns in schools (and Scott, too, opposes that).

But many people on both sides of the gun issue favor the bill’s mental health provisions, which would allocate nearly $90 million more for mental health resources, including $69 million for schools.

Right now, there is roughly one school psychologist for every 2,000 students in Florida. The National Association of School Psychologists suggests there should be four times as many.

Dr. Mark Cavitt is a psychiatrist at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. The renewed interest and funding is a good start, he said, but “it alone is not going to prevent the next episode of mass violence.”

Though lawmakers have stressed that early detection of mental illness is key to keeping another school shooting from happening, Cavitt said there are other contributing factors, such as drug and alcohol use and gun availability. More research is needed, he said, to tease out the true mix of causes.

Brown-Woofter said she does think legislators are directing some money in the right place in this budget: funding to put more counselors in schools and to offer more training to help school employees identify mental illness.

“We are really pleased to see the attention and the awareness of mental health services now in the budget,” she said.

Survivors of the shootings also may need ongoing treatment, she said, and more counselors in schools could help students and parents get through situations like this — including families and schools that weren’t directly affected.

Hayes DuJardin, 15, worries that the same thing could happen at his school in Lakewood Ranch, south of Tampa.

“Parkland versus my school — they are very similar in the way they are set up,” he said. “So, everyone was asking, ‘How are we preventing this from happening here?'”

In the days after the shooting, officials across Florida chased down dozens of threats. Hayes said he was so disturbed by one online threat he came across that he brought it to the attention of his mom, Michelle DuJardin. It had a picture of a teen holding a gun with the words “Get ready for round two, Florida.”

“It’s terrifying when an incident like this happens,” Michelle DuJardin said. “You can’t help but be angry — scared.”

This story is part of a partnership that includes Health News Florida, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

KFF Health News' coverage of children’s health care issues is supported in part by the Heising-Simons Foundation.

[Update: This story was updated March 8 to reflect that the Florida House voted Wednesday to approve the legislation, which was approved by the Senate on Monday.]

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