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Sandy Hook tragedy prompts fresh look at Florida's mental health system

4:09 PM, Feb 8, 2013   |    comments
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Tallahassee, Florida - Nearly two months after the Newtown shootings, the tragedy is creating a broader debate and more intense focus on Florida's mental health system.

The system is a mess, according to advocates of mental health programs. They say Florida has cut spending for mental health services and now the state ranks 48th in that funding.

Florida spends $39 per person on mental health. The national average is $120.

As a result, Florida's jails and prisons are the mental health centers of the 21st Century and they're not equipped to handle those needs.

Community mental health programs are asking state lawmakers for an extra $75 million next year to provide more screenings to adolescents and young adults and to expand school mental health programs.

Bob Sharpe of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health believes the Newtown tragedy will convince state lawmakers to spend more on mental health.

"We know that there are effective treatments with early interventions that could avoid a lot of criminal justice expense that we have. We would want that for social reasons but we also know that it's a good business plan from a cost standpoint to do that."

Sharpe says Florida has focused too much on funding institutional mental health care in the past and should spend more on outpatient services in communities. He believes the state can catch people with mental health problems earlier if lawmakers commit to building up Florida's mental health system, instead of cutting it.

He's hopeful the Newtown tragedy will result in more effective mental health treatment for those at risk.

"Sandy Hook has really started something this year, which is a more detailed discussion of our mental health system and that's been promoted in part by the president and vice president's efforts relative to safety and public health and so I hope in Florida that we continue the dialogue, it's a meaningful one and results in concrete and substantive action."