Many Floridians struggle to access the mental healthcare they need. Who’s to blame?

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Our nation’s mental health crisis has reached a fever pitch, and Florida is feeling the heat.

Many Floridians struggle to access the care they need due to a lack of resources and support. That’s why policymakers, healthcare professionals, and the broader community must keep their foot on the gas pedal when addressing mental health in the Sunshine State.

Chief among the problems facing Florida is a severe shortage of mental health providers. Florida is among the top six states in the U.S. with the most areas dealing with mental health workforce shortages. The state is facing workforce shortages across hundreds of facilities that provide mental health services, and it would need more than 500 mental health professionals to address the problem.

This shortfall of mental health care providers is not just a statistic; it is a tangible obstacle that exacerbates the struggles of Floridians and results in preventable delays and backlogs in the health care system.

Prioritizing solution-oriented frameworks to support mental health within Floridian communities is critical – especially given that approximately 32 percent of Floridians report symptoms of anxiety or depression.

It is encouraging to see more leaders with a seat at the policymaking table recognize the urgency of the issue and the importance of prioritizing solutions. Florida lawmakers recently passed a ‘Live Healthy’ legislation package to enhance healthcare access across the state. The package includes providing crucial mental health support by establishing a new category of teaching hospitals that specialize in research and collaboration to address acute behavioral health needs.

Improving the mental health landscape in Florida can help turn the tide and ensure a happier, healthier state. Doing so will be an uphill battle, but there are solutions on the table to make progress.

If we take steps to build out our mental health workforce now, we can set our future generations up for success. We need strong investments in mental health workforce recruitment. It’s crucial that we increase the supply of qualified clinicians to address our nation’s mental health crisis across the board.

In the short term, we should be incorporating mental health services into primary care settings – as primary care physicians are most often the central point of contact for patients and can provide critical interventions on the front end. We know that 80 percent of people with a behavioral health disorder are already visiting their primary care physician at least once a year, so we must prioritize training for physicians to care for those with mental and behavioral health problems.

Unfortunately, there are still a number of barriers at play that threaten this potential for progress.

Namely, a proposed federal rule change to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) could actually lower standards for qualified clinicians and reduce patient access to and affordability of care.

While intended to increase the number of mental health care providers, this rule change could undermine patients’ quality of care, and the unintended negative consequences of the rule could exacerbate the mental health crisis among our most vulnerable communities – children, those struggling with substance abuse, and low-income families. It would lower standards for clinicians and make it even more difficult for people to navigate which professionals are qualified to help them.

It’s imperative that leaders here in Florida and nationwide address roadblocks like this so as not to exacerbate the challenges the Sunshine State is already confronting related to mental health.

I urge policymakers to oppose this rule and move forward with proactive solutions that will make a meaningful difference in access to mental health services. By bolstering our workforce, increasing telehealth services and supporting integrated care, we can set Florida on a strong path forward.

Constance “Connie” Garner is senior policy director at Foley Hoag who formerly served as senior policy director with the Senate HELP Committee. She played a pivotal role in drafting the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.

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