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Florida mental health summit: ‘We will impact the 2016 legislative Session’

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

In the wake of the Florida Times-Union’s powerful dive into dangerous gaps in the state’s mental health system of care, advocates pushing for change say they’re getting their strategy in place to press legislators hard to enact reforms in 2016.

“We’re coordinating a statewide advocacy effort, bringing together mental health professionals, advocates, families, and consumers, to really have an effect on the 2016 legislative session,” says Denise Marzullo, CEO of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida.

Marzullo is bringing two key lawmakers in to speak and advise attendees at the upcoming Florida Mental Health Summit: state Rep. Charles McBurney (R) of Jacksonville, and state Rep. Kathleen Peters (R) of St. Petersburg.

“These are two great leaders around this issue,” Marzullo said during an appearance on WJCT’s First Coast Connect. “They will speak on a panel with other experts to talk about what happened in 2015 and what they see that we can do as a community to impact the 2016 session.”

As the T-U reported, one bill that didn’t make it into law last session was McBurney’s House version of a measure that would have standardized mental health courts across the state. The session, of course, melted down three days early due to an internecine fight over Medicaid expansion, leaving a number of legislative priorities undone.

Nonetheless, members of the Duval legislative delegation have been advocates for improvements in how the state deals with mentally ill residents, responding to powerful and shocking stories like that of Jacksonville’s Harriford family. Sean Harriford, diagnosed as schizophrenic, bounced from the Duval County jail to mental health facilities to the streets for years, before police say he finally beat and suffocated his own mother just before Halloween of 2015.

His brother Jonathan had had Sean Baker-Acted countless times. But the law only allows an individual to be held for 72 hours. And current laws do not allow authorities ways to keep people safe from harming themselves or others– not to mention making sure they take their prescribed medication.

“With the current Baker Act, and someone being held for 72 hours, then with the release into homeless shelters and no continuum of care, we found our hands tied,” says Harriford.

Reporter Derek Gilliam is officially assigned to cover the criminal justice system for the T-U. But as he points out, “The mental health system really is the criminal justice system, and the spotlight needed to be shone on that.”

The media focus on the mental health issue is good timing for Harriford and Marzullo, one of a group of advocates around the state calling for a complete redesign of Florida’s laws and systems of care (not to mention increased funding).

“The treatment centers can petition the courts if they feel like the person hasn’t gotten stable in those three days, to stay a little bit longer. However, most people do get stabilized. The problem is the continuum of care. The Baker Act system holds people for three days; however, there’s not the follow-up that they need – the care coordination that is so critical. We’re stabilizing them, but most times the person ends up back on the streets, either committing a crime or getting Baker-Acted again,” says Marzullo.

“People at the state hospital are only taught to reinstate their competency. They’re taught how to go to court, what it means to plead guilty or not guilty. Unfortunately what happens is, when they gain a basic understanding of the process, with very little about treatment, they then are released back into the jail, where a court date is set. That often takes three to four months. Their competency goes backwards. Then we send them back to the state hospital. That often happens three to four times per person. It’s not an effective system. It’s not working at all,” she said.

“Everything from the courts, to the jail, to the police involvement, there are problems with every aspect,” says Harriford. “We need to change the culture. The mind is a powerful thing, and it’s connected to our health.”

In addition to her work writing for Florida Politics, Melissa Ross also hosts and produces WJCT’s First Coast Connect, the Jacksonville NPR/PBS station’s flagship local call-in public affairs radio program. The show has won four national awards from Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). First Coast Connect was also recognized in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014 as Best Local Radio Show by Folio Weekly’s “Best Of Jax” Readers Poll and Melissa has also been recognized as Folio Weekly’s Best Local Radio Personality. As executive producer of The 904: Shadow on the Sunshine State, Melissa and WJCT received an Emmy in the “Documentary” category at the 2011 Suncoast Emmy Awards. The 904 examined Jacksonville’s status as Florida’s murder capital. During her years in broadcast television, Melissa picked up three additional Emmys for news and feature reporting. Melissa came to WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. Married with two children, Melissa is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism/Communications. She can be reached at m.ross66211@gmail.com.

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