Kids' Mental Health at Risk, Report Warns; A Third of the Children Who Need Help Fail to Get It on the First Coast

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Byline: URVAKSH KARKARIA

One in every five kids in the First Coast suffers from a mental health problem - yet only a third get the help they need, health officials said Wednesday.

"We have an inadequate and fractured system of care in Jacksonville that cannot adequately respond to the mental health needs of our children," said a report by a group of health care entities, including the Duval County Health Department and the University of Florida.

A task force, comprised of about 15 people, including parents, psychiatrists, pediatricians, social workers, psychologists and insurance industry executives, has been formed to implement the report's recommendations.

"Children's mental health is a complicated issue, it's an important issue, and it's a life-saving issue," said Susan Byrne, president of the Mental Health Association of Northeast Florida, which also helped develop the report. "[The report] is a critical planning document ... and creates a community-based initiative to study access to care."

The shortage of mental health services affects all children, regardless of income and race, said Jeffrey Goldhagen, chief of community pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Jacksonville.

Several problems associated with children - including violence, truancy, and under-achievement at schools - can be traced to mental health, behavioral and developmental issues, Goldhagen said.

Good quality mental health services keep kids in schools and out of the juvenile justice system, said Veronica Valentine, chief executive at the Jacksonville-based Child Guidance Center, a nonprofit that provides mental health treatment.

While there are several public and private sector health care providers in Jacksonville, the report said, there is "little evidence of a system that links them together into a coherent system and tangible network."

Providers operate independently of one another and there is limited communication, and duplication and competition, among providers, the study found.

Chronic underfunding - by the private and public sector - is a major reason for the shortage of mental health services for children.

Consider this: the state provides about $4. …