Here4YOUth on Mental Health

Guest Correspondence

On a recent Friday, a distressed local high school student confided in the Student Assistance Program Specialist at her school. A friend at another school had said he intended to harm himself over the coming weekend. The SAP Specialist—a prevention and early intervention professional who provides counseling, mentoring, mediation, and other support—quickly contacted his counterpart at the student’s school, along with the school resource officer there.

They were able to find the student and talk with him about his troubles. His parents and his guidance counselor were soon informed too, and under careful watch the student safely made it through the weekend. Back at school Monday, the SAP Specialist began meeting with him regularly to assess his emotional stability and connect him to any resources he needed to keep working through his challenges. The student and his family have expressed gratitude for this intervention and support—which literally saved a life.

That’s how the system is supposed to work. But absent coordinated support like the Student Assistance Program—a relatively new innovation now in place at 10 Sarasota County schools—youth like the two in this real-life example often feel they have nowhere to turn.

That’s why Here4YOUth exists. This collaborative initiative seeks to transform the system of mental health care in Sarasota County, so that it fully meets the needs of our community’s children, youth and young adults. Here4YOUth is led by Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. But it’s really powered by more than two dozen frontline mental-health providers, as well as some of the brave youth and families who utilize their services. 

Priorities of our collaborative work include:

  • Creating a unified and coordinated system of care.
  • Prioritizing prevention and early intervention.
  • Assessing for trauma and providing trauma-informed services.
  • Supporting families in navigating the system, especially those with high-need youth.
  • Eliminating the stigma associated with mental health care.
  • Advocating for, aligning, and leveraging dedicated funding for youth mental health.

With regard to funding, consider what the gaps in our system already cost our community. According to research commissioned through Here4YOUth, untreated mental illness in children and young adults has an estimated economic cost of over $86 million a year for Sarasota County! That revelation begged the question, what (and whom) might we save with smarter investment in prevention and early intervention upstream and better access to more effective treatment for everyone who needs it?

We are on our way to finding out. Here4YOUth recently received the results of a first-of-its-kind financial analysis of our community’s entire mental— and behavioral-health system. The study looked at funding currently put into youth mental health in our community and opportunities to increase return on those investments. We know of no other county that has completed this kind of deep dive.

Among the hopeful findings:

  • Funding for youth behavioral health in Sarasota County is significant already at about $44 million.
  • The majority of it (about 70%-75%) comes from public and local sources, meaning we have opportunities to improve where and how it is spent.

Recommendations for getting a better return on the money we spend on behavioral health services include:

  • Increase school-based prevention and early intervention.
  • Expand access to community-based mental-health and substance-abuse services and prevention.
  • Increase availability of care navigators and other resources to help families and youth navigate the system.
  • Better integrate primary care and behavioral health.
  • Increase crisis-response services and models of care for youth with complex needs.

Our youth deserve every opportunity to thrive. We are grateful to all of the professionals in our region who show up every day to meet their needs. We will keep our community informed as Here4YOUth continues to advance these and other priorities.

Mark S. Pritchett is president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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