Rising tides make it easy to see the effects of climate change, and daily traffic jams make clear Miami-Dade County’s desperate need to improve public transportation. While highly visible issues like these are rightfully at the center of our discourse, we must also recognize the challenges that lie beneath the surface: unseen, unheard, but incredibly real.
Mental illness has impacted all of us in one way or another, and as a social worker, I have seen how it can upend the lives of those afflicted and their families. Unlike the other issues of our day, mental illness is a topic that we tend to shy away from, whether for fear of judgment or uncertainty about where to turn for help.
Throughout the course of our primary campaign, former Mayor Alex Penelas opened up about his brother’s battle with mental illness and offered a thoughtful set of policies to build a more robust mental health infrastructure in Miami-Dade County. I applauded his efforts then, and it is my intention to continue building on the progress he made in destigmatizing mental illness and developing a whole-of-community response to it.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Miami-Dade was home to the highest rate of mental illness of any urban community in the country. More than 9% of our residents experience serious mental illnesses yet only 1% receive treatment. These rates are double or triple the national average and yet our state provides just $36 in funding per person – last in the country.
Too many of our residents are falling through the cracks, dealing with illness alone. Unable to cope, those afflicted often find themselves in a criminal justice system that is not prepared to treat them. In fact, the largest provider of psychiatric care in the entire state of Florida is the Miami-Dade County jail system, which spends around $90 million dollars every year to address mental illness.
Mental illness, however, is not merely about dollars and cents. This issue gets to the core of who we are as a community. If we continue to wait until these patients break down before they receive care, we will continue to fail not just the patients and their families, but ourselves as well.
This crisis disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our community – our children. Across our state, an estimated 181,000 children suffer from severe mental illness. In our county alone, it is estimated that up to 20% of our children suffer from severe mental illness. Facing a shortage of clinical and social support in our schools and community, children experiencing episodes are often dealt with by law enforcement and led to believe that their struggles with mental illness make them criminals.
This is not who we are.
That’s why I’m laying out my CARE plan – to raise awareness and confront this crisis, together. Now more than ever, with an unrelenting pandemic that has put many families through economic hardship and emotional trauma, this is an issue we cannot afford to ignore.
We cannot delay responding any longer. It’s on us to increase access to treatment and decrease our reliance on the criminal justice system to provide it. We must make it a priority to increase coverage for mental health treatment and bring together our entire community to make sure our efforts are coordinated, impactful, and efficient. In order to address this crisis, we can do the following:
Convene a task force of community leaders and service providers to reduce redundancies and inefficiencies in our County response
Fund efficient and effective community organizations
Enhance efficient low-cost data solutions that reduce families’ stress of having to explain circumstances and health history to every new care provider
Address gaps in state funding for vulnerable populations
Ensure mental health parity for County employees
Evaluate County contracts for contractors’ mental health coverage
Maximize the efficiency of our referral to care through existing systems such as Thriving Mind and 211
Invest in Crisis Intervention Units and strengthen outpatient resources that build on already funded, accountable, nonprofit resources as an alternative to law enforcement.
Expand downstream mental health infrastructure to prevent arrests, avoid contact with the criminal justice system, and provide preventative and early-episode care.
There is a lot our County and nonprofit organizations are already doing right. Our County’s current diversion program has seen tremendous success, including new partnerships between Miami Dade Police and Thriving Mind, and thanks to the tireless advocacy of my colleagues Sally Heyman and Audrey Edmonson, along with the work of Judge Steve Leifman, and Thriving Mind, we broke ground on the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery last summer.
However, there is still more to do.
Addressing inadequacies in mental healthcare will not be an easy task, but it is one we must confront in order to build a community that reflects the values of our people. I have spent my career fighting for our most vulnerable as a social worker, a lawyer, and a public official. My experience as a nonprofit leader and County Commissioner means that we don’t have to start from scratch in addressing these inadequacies. Time and time again, I have found that many systemic inequalities stem from untreated mental health issues. As Mayor, my commitment to address the root causes of these issues will come second to nothing.
I want to thank former Mayor Penelas for helping bring this critical conversation to light, and I know that he will be an essential community partner in helping realize this change. I am committed to collaborating with existing entities and properly funding this effort to meaningfully reform the way our County government approaches mental health.
Through the collaboration of everyone in our County, there is nothing we cannot overcome as we work toward a healthier, safer Miami-Dade.