TALLAHASSEE -- With Florida ranked next to last among states for mental health funding, lawmakers are examining how to improve a struggling service delivery system in the wake of recent mass shootings.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said last month's tragedy in Newtown, Conn., had brought mental health issues to light.
"We're going to look very closely at the mental health challenges we have in Florida," he said. "We want to make sure, obviously, we protect our children so that never happens here, what happened in Connecticut."
The House Healthy Families Subcommittee Thursday heard from experts that the state can't wait until the next calamity to act.
"One lesson we learned from these horrific tragedies is that it's important to continually focus on building and maintaining a mental health system, and not just focus on mental health as a priority after tragedy strikes," said Charles Curie, former head of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration under President George W. Bush.
Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, chairwoman of the Healthy Families committee, said she's seeking recommendations to strengthen the state's mental health policies, since her panel has little say about the increased funding that providers say they need.
The subcommittee heard from providers, advocates and representatives of the state Departments of Education, Juvenile Justice and Children and Families about the availability of services for Floridians with mental health problems.
The experts agreed the state must find ways to identify people with mental illnesses sooner and divert them from the criminal justice system.
"Florida faces a deepening crisis," said Bob Sharpe of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health. "We have criminalized mental illness."
According to Florida Partners in Crisis, serious mental illness occurs in five percent of the general population, but is much more prevalent in the criminal justice system. In jails, 15 percent of men and 31 percent of women are mentally ill; in prisons, 16 percent of men and 24 percent of women are mentally ill.
Florida spends more than $1 billion annually on prison, jail and forensic hospital beds serving state residents with mental illness.
Curie said the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illnesses in the mid- to late-20th century had put many of them on the street or in the criminal justice system. "It wasn't well done," he said.
Florida has cut $34 million in funding for mental health services over the last three years.
And Rob Siedlecki, DCF Assistant Secretary for Substance Abuse and Mental Health, told the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee this week that the state's spending on prevention services is "practically zero."
The panel of experts agreed that early mental health screening and diagnosis could help prevent future tragedies.
"We feel like we are in a race to catch children coming into the system early, before their behavior and their legal cases begin to drive what is done," said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters.