SARASOTA/BRADENTON, FL – Sobering statistics on the state of mental health in youth in the U.S. indicate an increased incidence of mental illness while also pointing to significant barriers to treatment. Even in the decade before the pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people. With the disruption and challenges of the pandemic, these issues have been exacerbated; in the fall of 2021, a coalition of leading experts in pediatric health in the U.S. declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. (Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.)
According to Mental Health America, more than 15% of youth experienced a major depressive episode in the past year, and over 2.5 million youth in the U.S. have severe depression. At the same time, nationally, more than 60% of youth with major depression do not receive any mental health treatment and fewer than one in three youth receive consistent mental health care. Substance use rates are also on the rise; substance abuse and mental illness are often tied together.
Locally, Safe Children Coalition is seeing the youth mental health crisis firsthand. Its Youth Shelter serves more than 200 teens a year, providing 2,723 bed days in FY 2021; the Shelter has already provided 1,497 bed nights in the first seven months of FY 2022. The length of stays in the Youth Shelter have increased, with four out of five clients’ parents initiating placement in higher levels of care in residential treatment program settings (which now have wait times of two to three months). The shelter also saw an increased need for placement of community clients due to increased mental health issues. The primary referral source for shelter services over the past two years has been the Bayside Center for Behavioral Health Crisis Stabilization Unit.
Safe Children Coalition’s senior director of out of home care, Jill Steiner, notes that while aggressive behavior in youth has increased, it is mental anguish that is dominant. SCC professionals are also seeing dramatically higher numbers of children coming into care due to “parents’ inability to cope” as well as more cases where children who were adopted are surrendered back to the state care system.
“We’ve never seen issues like we’re seeing now,” Steiner said. “Not helping the situation are cases where families are not taking advantage of available services and resources – such as conduct disorder classes – or the limitations we face for youth infractions, resulting in decreased accountability for juvenile crimes.”
Youth Shelter director Charles Harris has worked for SCC for 12 years and has seen client needs evolve over his tenure.
“For the youth that we serve, what we are seeing is a shift from mainly behavioral issues to primarily mental health issues; we have had to adjust the program to be able to provide the correct structure and meet the youth where they are at developmentally,” Harris said. “It takes a village and I am proud of the team for being part of the village by providing a needed resource to the community.”
The Sarasota County Child and Youth Mental Health Environmental Scan (2019) affirmed, “When mental health problems go untreated, there is a negative impact on quality of life of the child, adolescent, young adult, and family members, which extends into schools, workplaces, and social structures.” The report noted there was a need for more prevention services beginning in preschool and continuing through every grade level; it also pointed out the lack of sufficient funding for mental health services.
In January of 2021, First Step of Sarasota formed a Mobile Response Team (MRT) to provide around-the-clock intervention to youths, adults and families experiencing a mental health and/or substance abuse crisis. The main goal was to try and divert a youth from needing to be Baker Acted. In 2021, there were 315 youths referred for MRT action; in 86% of the cases, diversion was successful.
“By the time children come to us, so much irreparable damage has already been done. The system is difficult for families to navigate. The underfunding of services in our community by the state, staff shortages, a marked slowdown in access to critical services, and the negative impacts of social media and the pandemic, have pushed the situation to a crisis point,” said Steiner. “Prevention needs to start WAY before kids ever get to our doors.”
For more information, visit sccfl.org.
About Safe Children Coalition, Inc.
Safe Children Coalition, Inc. (SCC) serves as the lead agency for community-based care for Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. SCC is a collaboration between local community agencies that provide services to children and families in need. SCC is committed to protecting children, strengthening families, and building community. The core functions provided by SCC include: child welfare case management, foster care, adoption, independent living, prevention, diversion, quality management, and support services as well as other social service programs. Visit sccfl.org or call 941-371-4799.