According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was the leading diagnosis among children aged 3 to 17 from 2016 to 2019 at just under 10%. Anxiety came second at 9.4%, behavior problems at 8.9% and depression at 4.4%.
Among the organizations working with the Northwest Florida Mental Health Task Force is the Pensacola Chapter of the Children’s Home Society of Florida. Executive Director Lindsay Cannon says it all started with a phone call.
“I was in my office one day and Rep. Michelle Salzman called me and said, ‘We need your voice at the table,'” Cannon said. “I was honored and shocked at the same time that we were doing this in our community. It was really needed. And I said resoundingly, yes madam, I will be there.
As you probably know, treating children with mental health issues is 180 degrees from treating adults. The Children’s Home Society has spent the past decade researching and implementing evidence-based practices designed for children and adolescents.
“We knew that working with children, especially traumatized children, is really our focus,” Cannon said. “[It] really requires a special skill set to overcome that, not just as a clinician recognizing the effects of trauma as well as the mental illnesses that can come from it.
When she attended the task force’s first meetings, Cannon was struck by the “ton of people” in the room — from adults to children, public and private organizations, and representatives from the City of Pensacola and County of Pensacola. ‘Escambia. What was also evident was that there was no established “roadmap” for who was doing what.
“Who was doing prevention work, intervention work, who was doing, like, diversion, who was doing impatient residential and what does that look like,” she said. “So I think it was really impactful for all of us to sit in a room and talk about what we’re doing on the spectrum, but also look at each other like I had no idea you were doing this. “
The ongoing challenge, about two-thirds of the task force’s work, has been to seek new solutions to a number of problems while simultaneously dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s been a real, I think, humbling effect to say that we have no idea what this is going to look like post-pandemic, and we have to be prepared,” Cannon said. “And how do we do that?”
Mental health and pediatric specialists are only part of helping children. Cannon says parent involvement is vital, as well as the Children Home Society’s partnership with the Escambia County School District to place counselors in colleges over the past two years.
“And what we realized was that there were a lot of kids who might have diagnosed mental health issues who really needed long-term counseling,” she said. “But we also had our children who had traumas or situations at home that made it difficult to attend school.”
Another reform allows anyone to send a reference that a child is having a hard day at school.
“And that would allow us to connect with the parent, of course, to get their consent. But to really tell what’s going on and maybe just offer short sessions,” Cannon said. “Maybe they just need to resolve a situation, learn some coping skills, or just have someone to talk to about whatever is going on. It was a non-educational area for them.
The Children’s Home Society has also worked with law enforcement to help children whose environments lead to mental health issues. Pensacola police spokesman Mike Wood said officers responding to such a call were trying to find out the situation and the crux of the problem with the minor.
“Often they are with family members. There is someone who knows what condition they may have,” Wood said. “If it’s a mental condition and if it is, especially in a school, we try to let the school deal with it. And if it’s not, we have so other routes we take, like a mobile response team or taking the child to the Lakeview Center for further treatment.
It would seem that these days there is an increase in cases involving mental health issues. But Wood says that’s largely because of the specialized training of law enforcement officers. It’s a different day than it was 40 or 50 years ago.
“In the 70s and 80s, people just acted out,” Wood said. “They were bad people, they’re bad people. And now that we find out that there are people who have different conditions, things that make them act that way, and there’s a treatment for that, and often , many at the scene, how the officer is able to make the situation worse simply by the tone of his voice.
Outside of the task force, Cannon believes there will be changes to the child welfare system – including an impact on the traditional community care provider (CBC) called Families First – which has been replaced by the Northwest Florida Health Network.
“They’re currently a CBC in Tallahassee and the Panama City area, and they’re really doing a lot of town halls along our area asking, what do you guys see? What are the trends ? And I think really listening to the community was a really big part of that, listening to the host families,” Cannon said.
One of the goals, Cannon added, that the task force is looking for is connectivity with other providers. She says mental health treatment – especially for children – should be what she calls a continuum of partnerships which are groups that can share expertise in the many areas of mental health care.