Feel Your Best: Youth Mental Wellness

Guest Correspondence

Photo courtesy Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

On Saturday, May 7, the Wellness Fest, hosted by the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, featured dancing, art therapy, yoga, snow cones, Drago the therapy dog, a photo booth and more. “Feel Your Best at our Mental Wellness Fest” was the theme. It was planned by and for teens in collaboration with Youth MOVE Suncoast of NAMI Sarasota and Manatee Counties and sponsored by the Here4YOUth Initiative of Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. 

May 7 is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, but it’s a topic that is appearing frequently in the national news. On May 8, “60 Minutes” aired an in-depth look at children struggling with depression, anxiety and feeling unable to cope. Demand for help, from youth and adolescents nationwide, far outweighs access to mental health treatment, and there are long waiting lists to see a clinician. Many viewers wrote to CBS about the story and said the brave young people who shared their journeys will give life-saving hope to others.

The Here4YOUth Initiative of Gulf Coast and Barancik foundations launched in 2018 because stakeholders told us one of the biggest needs in our community is access to quality mental health care for children and young adults. Since that time, youth needs have increased.

The Here4YOUth Initiative identified best-practice recommendations for Sarasota County by commissioning research reports from the University of South Florida and a national firm. Nonprofit service providers, the school district, Bayside Behavioral Health, county staff and foundations have worked together to begin to fill gaps. We have made some progress. Thanks to generous donors, NAMI Sarasota and Manatee Counties now has a Family Navigator to help with finding services, support groups and building a sustainable recovery plan. NAMI has expanded to offer Day Center services, programming for youth and families, and more Peer Specialists. They are hiring Parent Peer Specialists to come alongside parents in the child welfare system, to offer support. There are more mental health therapists in schools. First Step of Sarasota has Student Assistance Program Specialists in middle and high schools, building relationships with students to address issues right away.

The Sarasota County Commission took the innovative step of creating a Mental Health District to address overwhelming demand for quality mental health services, particularly in youth when challenges first arise. Federal American Rescue Plan Act funds have been made available to begin to address the need, but those funds expire in three years. Both research reports commissioned by the Here4YOUth Initiative point to the need for recurring, sustainable funding to provide support as early as possible to prevent crises and long-term negative outcomes.

Resources, especially when they’re informed and chosen by the people who use them, make a positive difference. Maybe for a lifetime. Students said this about the Student Assistance Program Specialists at their high schools: “Ms. P has put me in treatment and is available to me daily. I feel much more confident I can get through my senior year.” 

“She was very understanding of my behavior and things I’ve said and didn’t judge me for my past or what I’ve been through. I am very grateful that I met her.”

“I almost got into fights. Anger is my biggest issue. I took the anger management group and learned so much. Now I think before I act and go to her or reach out to an adult.”

Positive change is happening. Brave young people are sharing their experiences, eliminating the stigma around seeking help, and working together to help one another feel their best. An effective, funded Mental Health District will help bring life-saving supports to them, when they need it — making every day Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

Jennifer Johnston is the director of Community Leadership for Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Photo courtesy Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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