Healthy Life

Healthy Lee Hosts First Public Discussion on Mental Health and Substance Abuse

About 250 people from various sectors attended Tuesday's event.

BY January 9, 2018


You can’t solve a problem unless you talk about it.

Simple, right?

Southwest Florida has a very big problem—a drug and alcohol and mental health and dementia problem—and its residents and care providers historically haven’t been very good about talking about it. To be sure, individual groups are working toward answers, but collectively, Group A often has no idea what services Group B offers (or, worse, that Group B exists).

Tuesday morning, some of the area’s best-connected people did what they do best—connect people and get them talking.

Healthy Lee, a civic group dedicated to improving public health in Lee County, hosted a first-of-its-kind community conversation to address mental health and substance abuse needs. About 250 people from various sectors attended the event, held at the Lee campus of Florida SouthWestern State College.

“The only way we can sustain change is by rallying the community,” said Christin Collins, who along with Debbie Toler, organized the forum. The two women had first been introduced to the magnitude of mental health needs as co-chairs of the 2017 Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest, and wanted to shift from fundraising to spearheading systemic change. (Collins is also a 2017 Gulfshore Life Men & Women of the Year honoree.)

The appetite for reform is palpable. As we reported this month, some of the region’s biggest health care organizations are banding together to create a model of children’s wellness that marries pediatric and psychological care. The keynote speaker, addiction specialist Robert Roose of Mercy Behavioral Health Care in Massachusetts, called that “integrated care” approach critical to solving the nation’s addiction crisis, among other behavioral health challenges.

“The opioid epidemic is the crisis of our time, but it is integrating behavioral health care (into physical health care) and collaborating that is the opportunity of our time,” Roose told the crowd.

Nationally, someone dies of an overdose every 8 minutes, he said.

Other challenges: One in 5 children have a diagnosable behavioral health disorder (34,000 in Lee County alone); 22 percent of Lee County adults have been diagnosed with depression; some 5 million Americans nationally (about 21,000 in Lee County) suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Area experts offered snapshots of those various subtopics—children’s mental health, workplace assistance programs, dementia, adult services, substance abuse—and then polled the audience members to get a sense of priorities and the types of solutions most desired.

That information will guide the next step—assigning volunteers to work groups that will attack various pieces of the puzzle.

“We have the solution in this room,” Collins said.

The next community conversation will be held on March 12 at 5:30 p.m. at First Christian Church in Fort Myers. Featured will be Minding Your Mind, a nonprofit group in Philadelphia. Toler, Collins and Sarah Owen, the CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and overall chair of the Healthy Lee behavioral health task force, spent time with that organization over the summer.

“It’s an amazing organization. They really believe you break the silence through education,” Toler says.

Visit the Healthy Lee website for more information as it becomes available.


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