Mental Health in Jacksonville: The Challenges, Why It Matters, and How to Help
In some ways, living in Jacksonville is very conducive to good mental health.
We get sunshine almost year-round, we live close to the beach, and our workers are statistically among the happiest in the country.
However, in many other ways, life in Jax can be a constant struggle for those who deal with mental illness.
When it comes to resources for those dealing with mental health issues, Jacksonville unfortunately lags behind most cities of similar size.
It’s bad enough that the entire state of Florida ranks second-to-last in mental health care funding – but then add in the fact that Northeast Florida is the second lowest funded region in the state.
That means we’re one of the lowest-funded counties, in one of the lowest-funded states, in respect to mental health care.
To put the problem in other terms, there’s just one licensed mental health professional for every 153 mental health patients in Jax. This is actually a better ratio than many other Florida counties, but the entire state struggles mightily with proper resources. it’s also emblematic of a severe, country-wide shortage of mental health care professionals.
This shortage is particularly troubling because of how involved the process of mental health care is. Many patients require weekly therapy sessions – some even need multiple sessions a week. As a result, the clinicians we do have are routinely overworked.
A survey by the Florida Department of Health ranked mental health care as the third-hardest health care service to obtain in Duval. And while the city does sponsor several mental healthcare centers, they’re generally overworked and understaffed as well – and some have gained a bad reputation for poor quality of care.
And it doesn’t help that two prominent privately-operated centers, River Point Behavioral Health and Wekiva Springs Center – are owned by a company that was accused last year of insurance fraud and abuse of patients’ rights.
Sadly, in Duval County and in much of Florida, the state’s Department of Corrections ends up handling the brunt of the mental health care burden, as those with untreated mental illnesses often end up in the criminal justice system for various reasons.
Programs have been proposed by various leaders over the past decade to improve the city’s mental health resources, but very little has actually changed as a result of those proposals so far.
WHY IT MATTERS
While Jax is considered a relatively “happy” city, that doesn’t mean everyone in the city is doing well. Mental illness and its related issues are more prominent here than some may realize.
On average, one in five people in America suffer from some form of mental illness. It’s not always readily apparent to others, and some people can hide their symptoms well enough to never even be noticed.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering.
Most mental illnesses develop either in adolescence or young adulthood. In a city that is becoming rapidly inundated with young professionals seeking job opportunities, this makes access to mental health care in Jax even more crucial.
There are 13 suicides per 100,000 residents in Jax each year. And concerningly, suicidal thoughts among Duval residents seem to begin at an early age.
Just below 15% of Duval County high school students surveyed back in 2011 reported “seriously considering” suicide. Last year, a similar survey reported 19% of high school students in Duval had at least attempted suicide. That number becomes particularly concerning when compared to the state-wide rate of 8%.
Over 16% of Jax residents surveyed just last year reported issues with heavy or binge drinking, which is often a sign of underlying mental health issues, and 13% report feeling “frequent mental distress.”
Those stats are actually about on par with the rest of the state and the nation as a whole – but that doesn’t make them any less concerning.
On average, Jax residents report an average of around four “bad mental health days” each month – a number that’s risen by a full day since 2007. This can vary widely – some people’s bad days involve sitting in bed all day, while others’ involve major incidents of psychosis. And you have to remember that while the average may be four, some residents spend the majority of each month suffering – usually in silence.
Not helping matters is how physically inactive the city is, on average. Exercise is commonly cited as one of the best ways to fight depression and anxiety, but 24% of Duval residents report themselves as being physically inactive, and 31% are obese.
On the state side of things, the number of involuntary commitments through way of the Baker Act increased by 66% from 1999 to 2012.
All of this goes to say that there’s a troubling reality bubbling underneath the city’s happy exterior, and it must be addressed.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Unfortunately, there are significant limitations to what the average citizen can do to help solve the issues with mental health care.
Most meaningful changes are in the hands of local and state politicians, who can push for legislation to force insurance companies to offer more reasonable mental health care coverage.
Much of the problem is that mental health care remains unaffordable for many residents – especially the ones who are most in need of it. It’s unreasonable to expect people to prioritize consistent therapy or medication over things like having a place to live, food to eat, and other basic necessities.
And with over 16% of the city living below the poverty line, and 19% of adults estimated to be living without any form of health insurance, that’s a real choice that many residents have to make.
Those unable to afford proper care end up receiving substandard care – or nothing at all. And this leaves their condition to further deteriorate over time, until in many cases they end up being unable to function.
Recent national healthcare reforms helped to lower the number of mental health patients without access to care. However, the system is still far from perfect, and even those reforms are in jeopardy as a result of partisan politics.
And unfortunately, Florida was one of the nineteen states that chose not to expand Medicaid services following the passage of the Affordable Care Act. It’s estimated that up to 900,000 more Floridians would gain coverage under Medicaid expansion. That being said, the state is at least trending in the right direction, with a 17% increase in Medicaid enrollments since 2013.
For those who do wish to try to make a difference themselves, there are opportunities.
River Region Human Services, one of the better city-funded mental health care centers, accepts donations via their website (rrhs.org).
Another city-funded center, Northwest Behavioral Health Services, accepts donations online as well (nwbh.org) and also has several volunteering opportunities available.
Funding helps these centers gain additional resources, more clinicians, and provide a better quality of care overall.
Spreading awareness of mental health issues is also of vital importance. Organizations like the Jacksonville-based Stronger Than Stigma aim to fight ignorance and apathy in regards to the plight of those with mental illnesses. By spreading knowledge, dispelling stereotypes, and putting a human face on disorders that many still struggle to understand, it helps inspire others to stand up and fight alongside those suffering.
One of Jacksonville’s great qualities is that, despite how huge the city is, it still manages to feel like a close-knit community. As such, we must look out for everyone in our community – especially those who could really use our help.
By standing together, spreading knowledge, and demanding better from those in leadership positions, we can help those who suffer from mental health issues feel valued and cared for in Jacksonville.