When Hurricane Michael pummeled Bay County, it left behind more than damaged homes

Bay County

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — Mental health has been a focus in Tallahassee and in our school systems since Hurricane Michael. 

So far, millions of dollars in mental health support have been promised to the area to address not only the lingering effects from the hurricane but also new issues from the ongoing pandemic.

Two years later, residents are still feeling the effects.

“If I had to answer in one word it’s stress,” said Suzan Gage, Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida executive director. “A lot of stressed parents. A lot of children who are exhibiting strange behaviors for that age of a child. And really a community that is really pretty tapped out on a lot of things.”

“Our educators as well are handling the same anxieties that all of us are occurring in the community,” said Dawn Capes, Bay District Schools director of student wellness programs.

On top of a Category 5 hurricane, a global pandemic is only making things worse.

“When we have such a major disaster, followed by a pandemic,” said Ken Chisholm, Bay District Schools mental health counselor. “I mean we just haven’t been able to get a break for the last couple of years, have we?”

Mental health in schools has been a large focus

Every school district in Florida receives an annual allocation of money meant to be put towards mental health efforts.

Since the hurricane, Bay District Schools has received a little extra.

This includes:

  • $2 million to address the school’s mental health initiative,
  • $1.25 million to expand the number of licensed mental health professionals in schools, and 
  • $33 million for general disaster recovery funds, about $11 million of which was allocated for mental health.

“Every school has some version of a trained professional who can help with de-escalations, who can help students who might benefit from group sessions,” Capes said. “And those group sessions might help them with strategies to handle anxiety. Strategies to handle conflict.”

Capes said they hired almost 100 mental health professionals across all Bay District Schools.

“When you have students who are socially and emotionally healthy then they’re ready to receive the academics that our teachers are providing,” Capes said.

But outside of Bay County, not much extra money has been spent. First Lady Casey DeSantis installed 63 telehealth kiosks in every public school in Bay, Calhoun, Gulf, Franklin, Jackson and Liberty counties.

Gulf County schools also received a small $2,000 grant on top of its annual allocation while others received nothing extra.

“Sometimes we find that those counties outside of Bay have limited or less resources so we tried to eliminate that, ‘oh we don’t have therapists in our area,’ so we’ve got therapists that are willing to work all over in those seven counties,” Gage said.

Money went to other organizations to bolster mental health resources

Money also went to other entities in Bay County to bolster mental health efforts in the area.

The Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida received $5.2 million to launch Operation Kaleidoscope, a project to increase the presence of mental health professionals in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties.

“I think probably, most importantly for families and people with young children or people who work with young children, is the ability to have mental health specialists and licensed mental health counselors available to work with teachers who work with young children, parents of young children and the young children themselves,” Gage said.

She added that it’s not enough to just hire more professionals. This grant will allow them to ensure families treatment by subsidizing the costs regardless of insurance or financial situation.

“We really wanted to any barriers to mental health services to families with children or people who work with young children,” Gage said

Additionally, the state awarded $2.3 million in federal funding to bring Project HOPE, a national disaster recovery group, to the area immediately after Michael, with another $690,000 for a 90-day extension in January.

The extra funding is making a difference

Most importantly, Gage added that the extra money is making a difference.

“Child care programs and families who had access to mental health specialists were able to report better outcomes or situations improving or they were able to identify challenges or issues early on so they can start and continue to get the support that they need or that their children need to be successful,” Gage said

Chisholm said most of the work they are doing in Bay District schools is a direct result of the extra mental health funding from Hurricane Michael.

The district’s ReStart grant expiration date is October of 2021, but Capes says they are pushing for an extension due to setbacks from COVID-19.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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