$9 Million to Target Kids' Mental Health; Thousands of Duval Children Are Not Getting Badly Needed Services

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Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

Sweeping changes are coming to the way Jacksonville handles children's mental health. For some advocates, it is none too soon.

"This is the most critical issue we're dealing with in pediatrics," said Jeff Goldhagen, chief of the community pediatrics division at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville. "If I had a million dollars, I would spend $990,000 of it on mental health."

The effort here will get quite a bit more than that with a six-year, $9 million federal grant that aims to keep troubled kids from falling through the cracks of a now-fragmented system. Another $3 million could come from local matching funds.

The grant, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, will be unveiled at a Tuesday news conference. The money will go to the Jacksonville Children's Commission and then be funneled to the nonprofit Partnership for Child Health, of which Goldhagen is medical director. The hope is to reach more than 30,000 children by 2015.

"Right now what we have in Duval County is a bunch of different services for children who need mental health care, but we have nothing to link those pieces together," said Linda Lanier, CEO of the commission.

Kids in need range from those who suffered a loss and need some temporary counseling to those with significant mental illnesses.

Of Duval County's 275,000 children younger than 18, more than one in four are living with a behavioral disorder or severe emotional disturbance, according to research presented in the grant. Yet fewer than half receive care, a rate far below the national average. And funding is low.

Florida ranks at the bottom nationally for mental health spending, and Northeast Florida receives the least resources in the state, according to the grant's writers. Suicide and mental health crisis calls to the United Way hotline have more than doubled in the past two years.

Goldhagen estimates that even when kids are screened for mental health and substance abuse problems, only a fraction of those referred ever get further evaluation or treatment.

The Child Guidance Center has seen about a 30 percent increase in families seeking help over last year, said Theresa Rulien, its president and CEO.

There's a lot of focus on children's physical health, while mental health often goes without notice - both on a large and individual basis, said Michael Lanier, vice president of community health at Baptist Health. …