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North Florida Communities Struggle To Address Mental Health Needs

Bay County Jail Warden Rick Anglin
Bay County Jail Warden Rick Anglin

The Bay County Jail is experiencing a mental health crisis, leaving resources stretched thin and funds low.  The Bay County Sheriffs office is asking the county for an extra $430,000 to hire nine additional officers, but the mental health crisis in Bay County is not an isolated problem.

Bay County Jail Warden Rick Anglin
Credit Bay County Jail
Bay County Jail Warden Rick Anglin

In Florida, the odds of a person who has a mental illness ending up in a jail, rather than a hospital is 5-to-1. That’s according to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs Association. In Bay county, a quarter of the jail population takes a psychiatric medication says Warden, Rick Anglin.

“Out of that 25 percent, which normally runs 200-250 inmates, about 40 require special housing because it’s not safe to put them in general population. Either they’re going to be victimized or they could possibly harm someone else," he says.

Anglin says most of the people he sees are repeats—coming into the jail for minor offenses like trespassing and loitering. Bay County’s Jail has become the county’s default treatment facility for people with mental health problems.  Anglin says the jail has adapted to the role of mental health provider by offering more services.

“We have mental health counselors, we actually have a psychiatrist on contract at this facility.  We a full medical staff, a full-time doctor who works here at the jail.”

The staff also administer medications and provide treatment and counseling services, but it’s still not enough. Anglin admits, his jail is not an appropriate place for many of the people its serving. And Bay County isn’t the only North Florida county struggling to address the issues around mental health and proper treatment.

“The state, historically, has funded programs and services for the chronically and persistently mentally ill. That funding continues to be inadequate for the needs in the community," says Carl Mahler, a member of the Leon county community health coordinating council and Administrator for Tallahassee Memorial Hospital’s Behavioral Health Administrator.

In Leon County, home of Florida’s state government, the situation isn’t much better. Mahler says when government officials shut down the psychiatric hospitals decades ago—they never invested funding into the communities to help expand treatment programs.

In Leon, there’s only three main outlets for mental health assistance: the county jail, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, and the Apalachee Center.

“We do not have enough of the supportive structures. It’s very complex," Mahler says. " You start with the various models of care. You start with the fact team. And we have one here at the Apalachee Center and they’re funded to serve 100 patients. Well, there are probably 1000 patients in the community who need this level of care.”

Mental health advocates say mental health services get left behind when it comes to how governments fund priorities. Despite slight increases in funding, several national studies of mental health spending continue to place Florida at or near the bottom of states.  And Donna Duncan, with the Big Bend Mental Health Coalition believes Leon county should re-prioritize its spending:

“I would create an out-patient center for people who are homeless and in need of counseling. Divert some of the money from Cascades Park and Gaines Street to have an outpatient center to serve some of these people.”

Duncan notes there’s often a stigma attached to mental health issues and an overall lack of awareness and she’d like to see that addressed as well. “It’s not an embarrassment or to be looked down on. Everyone needs help now and then and just a different kind of help," she says.

Many in the community would like to see the return of the Mental Health Court, to steer people away from jails and get them assistance elsewhere in the community. It’s funding has been intermittent in recent years and it’s not currently operational. Bay County Jail Warden Anglin would like to see a mental health court in his community too.

“I think with proper maintenance and supervision –many of these individuals could function in the community with supervision. And certainly a better environment and results than what we can produce in the jail.”

But outreach centers, and mental health courts—those things cost money. Something those who hold the purse strings don’t seem willing to give.  

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