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In SWFL, youth mental health forum targets stress, pressure and risk factors

 The Naples United Church of Christ hosted a youth mental health community forum for local healthcare players and mental health experts earlier this year to show their progress towards a more well community.
The youth mental health forum was held at the Naples United Church of Christ earlier this year.

The Naples United Church of Christ hosted a youth mental health community forum for local health care players and mental health experts to show their progress toward a more well community.

 If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the national crisis hotline at 988.

It’s been a rough few years for the children of Southwest Florida. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and community-shattering Hurricane Ian, it’s difficult for anyone of any age to not feel the doom and gloom.

These challenges paired with academic stress, pressure from social media and the looming risk of school shootings are hitting the region’s youth the hardest.

Scott Burgess, the CEO of David Lawrence Centers for Behavioral Health in Naples, agreed.

“We’ve had some collective traumas in our community across the last five years,” Burgess said. “All of those things, I think, are really some of the powder kegs that are driving the mental health challenges for the kids.”

The Naples United Church of Christ hosted a youth mental health community forum for local health care players and mental health experts to show their progress toward a more well community.

Rick Duggan, the director of special education for Collier County Public Schools, said why events and outreach efforts like this are important.

“Our community needs to be aware that even in Collier County, one of the safest communities in the country, that we have a significant number of young people that have mental health issues,” Duggan said. “And a lot of times, there are not enough resources.”

In 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared the youth mental health epidemic a national emergency. Southwest Florida has aimed to do its part in making sure needs are being met in light of the countrywide crisis, but there are still gaps that need to be filled.

The Rev. Mark Williams addressed this while introducing the youth mental health forum.

“On some days, it feels as though quite frankly, you're attempting to empty the ocean with an eyedropper,” Williams said.

The unavailability of mental health services has been a consistent issue, which is shown especially when pointing to Collier's 930-1 patient-to-provider ratio.

Much of the work being done by local experts relates to increasing that availability, whether that’s hiring more providers, improving facilities or other options.

Jamie Ulmer, CEO and president of Immokalee-founded Healthcare Network, explained the primary care provider’s integrated behavioral health screening. He hopes Healthcare Network’s presence in all 67 Florida counties will create statewide change.

“The doctor identifies through a checklist a behavioral health concern,” Ulmer said. “They either bring someone into that exam room or hand you off to a behavioral health counselor, who can begin to address the challenge right there on the spot.”

Collier County Public Schools has hired dozens of licensed mental health professionals, school psychologists and behavior analysts to help provide services. More than 80% of the district’s staff has completed the youth mental health first-aid training, which shows how to identify that a child may need help.

Duggan added that the scope for this training is far wider than just teachers.

“This is also training for the bus drivers, for the cafeteria workers, the school assistants, the front office staff, all of those folks,” Duggan said. “I'm looking for not only signs that someone may be struggling, but also how to get them help.”

Another organization playing a role in the region’s youth mental health scene is Kids’ Minds Matter. Managed through the Lee Health Foundation, it has trained over 1,000 people in youth mental health first aid, due in part to its collaborations with Lee and Collier schools.

Lee Health’s psychology site lead Jason Sabo praised the organization and its impact.

“Since Kids’ Minds Matter has gotten involved, they've been able to increase the outpatient pediatric mental health visits by 1,546%, which is just absolutely wild,” Sabo said.

While improving youth mental health is a much-appreciated objective for the region, many current and former students have strong opinions about how public schools are going about tackling it.

Ollie Saunders, a 12-year Collier County Public Schools student, attributes part of the Southwest Florida youth mental health crisis to the region being more conservative and not accepting children who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Saunders believes the increase in mental health support is reactive to the crisis and pressure from the public.

“There's also been more scrutiny in terms of how faculty and staff should serve students in terms of supporting their mental health in the age of 'Don't Say Gay' and similar bills,” Saunders said.

"Don't Say Gay" is a term used by critics of the Parental Rights in Education law Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in 2022. The law bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. In 2023, it was expanded to cover pre-K through eighth grade.

Regional wealth disparity is another pinpointed Southwest Florida-specific cause. Some families can’t afford mental health care, and don’t have access to resources that wealthier homes do.

Rebecca Beaudry, a Collier high school senior, thinks that information about school-based mental health care is not accessible enough, and that it’s yet another barrier for kids who need help.

“I would like the systems to be more transparent. I’m a big believer in the idea that knowledge is power,” Beaudry said. “And I think that a lot of the reasons that these systems fail students is because students just don't understand how they work.”

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Emma Rodriguez