July 13, 2024
Central Florida starts offering free mental health care for uninsured kids

Amid a growing youth mental health crisis, the Mental Health Association of Central Florida has begun offering free mental health services to uninsured, low-income children, teens and their families at its downtown Orlando Outlook Clinic.

The free clinic previously offered counseling and medication management mental health services for adults, but in recent years, the need for more mental health care for young people has become impossible to ignore, said Marni Stahlman, president and CEO of the association.

“There’s gun violence, there’s discrimination, there’s poverty, there’s housing insecurity, food insecurity,” Stahlman said. “There are limited resources for child and adolescent young adult services in the community, particularly the uninsured, but more importantly, we were starting to see … suicidal ideation, increases in emergency department visits, depression and anxiety.”

Teen suicide rates have jumped nationwide in recent years, particularly among Black and Hispanic teenage boys, and in some cases, their first encounter with a mental health professional is when they wind up hospitalized.

Almost two-thirds of Florida youth – 62% – with a major depression diagnosis don’t get treated, according to a 2023 analysis by Mental Health America, which ranks the state 46th in access to mental health care.

There has been a growing mental health crisis among the nation’s youth over the past couple of decades, even before the pandemic intensified the issue, said Dr. Rajan Wadhawan, senior executive officer of AdventHealth for Children.

“The resources haven’t increased as much as the prevalence of these mental illnesses has increased,” Wadhawan said. “There’s a lot of work to do to ensure every child gets the support they need.”

Mental Health Association of Central Florida director of adolescent and family services, Stacy Perin, and CEO, Marni Stahlman, in the lobby at the Outlook Clinic in Downtown Orlando on Wednesday, January 10, 2024. (Rich Pope, Orlando Sentinel)
Mental Health Association of Central Florida director of adolescent and family services, Stacy Perin, and CEO, Marni Stahlman, in the lobby at the Outlook Clinic in Downtown Orlando on Wednesday, January 10, 2024. (Rich Pope, Orlando Sentinel)

The association’s program launched Jan. 8 after a successful pilot program at Orlando’s Rock Lake Community Center, which will continue to serve as a second therapy site. It targets kids ages 6-17 in families with incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty line. Funding comes from the Central Florida Cares Health System Inc., the city of Orlando and the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics.

The program aims to offer solutions-focused and brief therapy to teach kids coping skills and emotional awareness so they have a “toolbox” to avoid getting to the point of suicidal ideation or major mental illness, said licensed Clinical Social Worker Stacy Perin, who designed it as director of Adolescent and Family Services at the mental health association.

Already, she’s seen positive results from the four kids and families she treated during the program’s October pilot.

“We’re catching these kids before things really are so much more severe,” Perin said. “They were internalizing, they were remembering the conversations, they were practicing the strategies. I mean, to see a child as young as 8 who’s using a journal … was really exciting.”

The effort is part of Central Florida’s larger investment in children’s mental health issues.

A 2022 analysis prepared by the Heart of Florida United Way found that addressing gaps in Orange County’s “broken” behavioral and mental health system would take over $49 million.

At least $49 million needed to fill gaps in Orange’s ‘broken’ mental health system, review finds

That same year, AdventHealth for Children launched a comprehensive pediatric mental health program, with the help of a $6 million gift from Dr. Phillips Charities. The program focuses on prevention and early detection –  including an initiative integrating behavioral and mental health assessments into the emergency department and primary care – as well as treatment.

Orlando’s Nemours Children’s Health, too, has invested in integrating primary and behavioral health care in recent years. The system received a $2.4 million grant from the state in late 2022 to fund care coordination, among other mental health services.

“Increasing mental health services across the nation is important, but here it’s … a mental health desert,” said Dr. Monica Barreto, a Nemours Children’s Health psychologist and clinical director of integrated behavioral health at the health system’s primary care sites.

These programs, however, are largely for kids with insurance.

Most kids have health insurance, but a growing number don’t. Florida is currently in the process of purging its Medicaid rolls following the end of a pandemic-era continuous enrollment requirement, and more than 360,000 kids have been kicked off the state’s subsidized health care coverage programs already.

Feds “deeply alarmed” after 360k Florida kids lose Medicaid, CHIP coverage

Dr. Lisa Spector, Nemours Children’s Health division chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, praised the Mental Health Association of Central Florida’s efforts to provide mental health care for uninsured youth.

“I think that what they’re doing is phenomenal, and it’s such a need for our community,” Spector said.

The association’s program clinic staff is small, but growing, and Stahlman said she is confident it will be able to accommodate future demand. She plans to hire clinical interns from the University of Central Florida School of Social Work. Stahlman also aims to expand the program’s locations and offer a telehealth option, acknowledging transportation could be a major barrier to accessing the services.

“I’m not worried about having the capacity to meet the need. What we’re trying to do is get the word out,” Stahlman said.

She also emphasized the importance of more work in the future to break down barriers to care, including hiring mental health professionals of color and Creole speakers to make services more inclusive.

“The biggest issue on the provider part that we haven’t solved is: to talk to these individuals in these communities, you have to have people that look and sound like them,” Stahlman said.

State funding for the clinic’s youth mental health program ends in July. The association is busy raising additional funds, and Stahlman said she is confident the program can continue long past the day that current funding runs out.

People can request referrals to the Outlook Clinic for themselves or others at mhacf.org/youth-and-family-services/ or call 407-898-0110, extension 2.

[email protected]; @CECatherman Twitter

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