By ANNE EASKER
An annual report on Florida Baker Acts shows Charlotte County has had the biggest increase in the Suncoast Region, with involuntary examinations at Charlotte Behavioral Healthcare increasing by 41.7 percent from fiscal year 2016/17 to fiscal year 17/18.
CEO Victoria Scanlon said that’s partially because the facility expanded at the beginning of fiscal year 2017-18.
CBHC also takes Baker Acts from other counties such as DeSoto, which does not have its own designated Baker Act receiving facility. DeSoto schools will trigger a Baker Act with students threatening suicide or showing other mental health concerns, the district reports.
“We were overcrowded and expanded, and that is definitely playing into the 17.45 percent increase that we saw (in the county),” Scanlon said. “When we have beds available and we’re not close to full, we’ll accept patients, especially from rural counties like Hendry, Glades and DeSoto.”
CBHC started with 23 beds and is currently licensed for 30, Scanlon said.
She believes the increase is also due to a growing awareness of mental health and substance abuse issues in the county. There’s more mental health awareness in the schools, and more than 70 percent of law enforcement officers with the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office, Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office and the Punta Gorda Police Department have gone through the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.
“That’s definitely something we want, but as they’re better equipped to notice problems, we should be expecting more problems,” she said. “It’s not a good thing, but what is the alternative? Eighty to 90 percent of kids that are Baker Acted are having thoughts of suicide.”
The suicide rate is another thing that’s gone up over the last fiscal year, which Scanlon said is discouraging to see.
“We started working on better community awareness around 2015 because we were seeing an increase in youth suicides,” she said. “We saw a downtick for a while, but now we’re seeing another uptick.”
The suicide rates for children under 18 increased by 3.39 percent from 2014 to 2017, according to the Baker Act Reporting Center fiscal year 17/18 report.
CBHC provides suicide prevention education in schools, funded by the Fred Lang Foundation, once in middle school and once in high school. The state of Florida will not fund suicide prevention in schools, though the schools are required to do a certain amount of mental health education.
“I think that’s a good thing, but we need to be having the conversation even more,” she said.
Children aren’t the only ones for whom the suicide rate has gone up. Older adults are also dying by suicide in record numbers in the county. The suicide rates for adults age 65 and up increased by 46.56 percent from 2014 to 2017.
“If you think about older adults, you don’t have them congregated together,” Scanlon said. “The schools are an easier starting place with the programs we’ve been able to put in place. It’s more complicated to get to older people because they are probably pretty isolated in their homes.”
Scanlon plans to bring the issue up to Together Charlotte in hopes of finding a way to address the issue and reach more older adults with mental health awareness.
There’s generally not one cause of suicide, but suicide can result from a mix of issues such as longstanding mental illness, substance abuse, trauma, and poverty.
While the Baker Act is not a perfect solution, Scanlon said it’s an immediate means to protect a person who is threatening to harm themselves or others and their community.
“I think that as nationally we see a rising suicide rate and rising violence, I think people in general, when they have a doubt in their mind, they’re going to feel more comfortable initiating the involuntary evaluation,” she said. “I don’t see Baker Acts going down as we see violence and suicide rates are going up.”
If you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one or would like emotional support, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you are seeking local mental health service or substance abuse treatment, contact CHBC at 941-639-8300.