TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is urging more state action to address mental health issues and prevent suicides after two Parkland high school shooting survivors took their own lives, bringing together agency heads and key legislators on Thursday to discuss the issues.
The state bumped up funding for mental health issues for schools after a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, and the recent suicides are prompting leaders to do even more to help those who need it.
“I’d like to say this is just like a little blip; it will go away. It’s not going to go away,” DeSantis said. “The lives at stake are important. It affects families, it affects communities and ultimately it will affect our success as a state if this is something that we’re not able to deal with.”
The issue isn’t just about handling the aftermath of a mass shooting. Leaders said veterans and first responders have higher suicide rates, and suicides among younger people in general is on the rise because of bullying and pressures created by an intense focus on social media. Also at issue is a growing drug addiction problem and a rising number of deaths associated with it.
At the discussion were the heads of Florida departments and agencies that manage child welfare, emergency management, juvenile justice, health care facilities, health, veteran affairs and law enforcement. Joining them were Democratic and Republican lawmakers on committees that handle health care and family legislation.
Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz, who graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said if Parkland was beginning to heal, the recent suicides ripped off the scab. He also mentioned the suicide of a father of a Sandy Hook Elementary School student killed in the 2012 Connecticut attack that left 20 students and six staff members dead. Moskowitz said that death earlier this week has also shaken Parkland.
“What that shows is that this is a long-term battle, that healing isn’t a year or two away,” Moskowitz said.
Among ideas that were discussed were expanding peer-to-peer programs in which people who have overcome mental health issues can help those going through them. Officials also talked about how to assist people who want help but can’t afford it.
“Some families can’t necessarily afford to get the mental health treatment services they need,” said Juvenile Justice Secretary Simone Marstiller. “If the kids and the families can’t get the treatment that they need, what good is the referral?”
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said it’s not enough to intervene when a student shows signs outward signs of mental health problems. He said people should also provide help if students go through an event that could trigger emotional issues.
Leaders also said it’s important to make sure that focusing on their own mission doesn’t create a tunnel vision, and they need to share information and work with other agencies. DeSantis agreed.
“You guys in the agencies really have got to work together, you’ve got to talk. You guys should have a follow-up meeting on this and figure out ways where you can actually be effective and not just end up in your own little area,” DeSantis said. “We have to have some unity of effort.”
Corrects a previous version that misspelled the first name of the juvenile justice secretary. Her name is Simone Marstiller.
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