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Gov. Ron DeSantis, wife Casey hold roundtable on COVID-19 and mental health, substance abuse

The governor and Florida's first lady talked about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health, including a spike in overdoses.
Credit: AP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, stands with his wife Casey during a news conference

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. — The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health is being felt by many across the state of Florida, and the governor, along with his wife, are opening up a discussion to talk about ways to help.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, along with his wife Casey, held a roundtable discussion in Altamonte Springs Wednesday to talk about COVID-19 and mental health. It's the second in a series of similar discussions hosted by the DeSantises in the last two weeks.

The governor said one year ago, the opioid crisis was considered one of the most serious public health issues. Now, despite the shifting focus to the coronavirus pandemic, the issue of opioid abuse has not faded or disappeared, but rather the pandemic is making the issue more challenging.

The governor gave some perspective when it comes to substance abuse: There are currently approximately 6,000 COVID-positive patients in hospitals across the state. But just last month, there were more than 60,000 overdoses across the state, up year-over year.

DeSantis said the pandemic is having a profound effect and affecting a "very broad reach of people" in the state.

"We've got to be able to juggle multiple balls," DeSantis said.

In Seminole County, there has been an increase in suicides by 35%, increase in overdoses by 51% and an increase in overdose deaths by 15% year-over-year, DeSantis said. The governor said hospitals have shown they have handled both the pandemic and mental health crisis well, but that state leaders have to continue to be supportive on key issues.

And the problem is not just affecting adults.

Closing school campuses is having a major impact on children and young adults, DeSantis said.

Not being able to interact with teachers or extracurricular activities is resulting in a steep dropoff in the number of child abuse reports across the state.

First Lady Casey DeSantis reiterated the governor's statement, specifying there were 63,534 overdoses last month.

"These are souls we're talking about," Casey DeSantis said, "lives who are in crisis right now, and they need to know there are avenues to help. That we are thinking of them. That this, too, will pass and we can help them."

Casey DeSantis said her role as a new mother makes it hit home for her and the governor that the pandemic is impacting children across the state.

"We need to make sure that is part of the conversation every day," Casey DeSantis said.

A decrease in calls to the child crisis hotline is typical over the summer months when school is out, she said, but this has been going on since March, "because our wonderful teachers across the state were not there to watch over these children."

A 40% decrease in calls translates to 17,000 children who could potentially be victims of abuse in homes with no outlet and no one to protect them, Casey DeSantis said.

"It's sad when you're talking about babies and children who can't fight for themselves," she said.

Adding that to new statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week: One in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 say they've considered suicide in the past month because of the pandemic, it paints a bleak picture of the nation's mental health during the crisis. 

"Think about all of our wonderful children who are the future of this great state," Casey DeSantis said. "We need to be up here fighting for them."

The first lady said the state's faith-based community, private sector and nonprofits need to unite to make sure children are able to achieve positive outcomes in order to lead happy, healthy and productive lives.

Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell said state leaders have to get the word out that help is available.

The trends pointed out by the DeSantises are alarming, Poppell said, referencing the decrease to child abuse reporting calls.

"Usually that's a two-month problem," he said. "This year, it's a five-and-a-half to six-month problem. When you think about a child being stuck in that situation for that long, it is heartbreaking."

Poppell said he is happy to promote the message for people to say something if they see something. He said he is excited from a child welfare aspect for schools to get back open.

Another speaker at the roundtable was Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Simone Marstiller, who said she sees the substance abuse issue and mental health issues through a different lens from the DJJ perspective.

"While mental health is not a risk factor for criminal behavior – and I want to make sure everybody hears that loud and clear – substance abuse IS a risk factor for criminal and delinquent behavior," Marstiller said.

The goal is to try to educate kids to catch these issues early on, because those risk factors could lead to children years down the road becoming involved with the DJJ system, she said.

"We know these children are our future so we need to make sure they don’t go down the path to ruination," Marstiller said.

AdventHealth Altamonte Springs CEO Tim Cook said the first lady's Hope for Health program has been vital as more people are overdosing. COVID-19 has brought a lot of isolation to people, Cook said, which can lead to substance abuse.

There has been a 30% increase in emergency department visits for substance abuse, Cook said, which is often linked to poor mental health.

Cook said the health system has the resources it needs to help people in the community. They just need to get the word out about where people can turn for help.

Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma said mental health is also a major component to the criminal justice system.

"We recognize that people don't wake up one day and decide they want to be criminals," Lemma said.

In the past, Lemma said overdose patients would be released back into the same environment where they overdosed, increasing their risk of dying the next time they overdose. Now, thanks to the Hope for Healing program, that risk is declining.

The sheriff also said the county has seen a decrease in child abuse and domestic violence reporting, largely due to the lack of interaction with first responders and reporters.

Another risk that has popped up due to the pandemic is cyber victimization, due to children spending more time online opening a whole new method of preying on the vulnerable.

The sheriff said his agency is glad to be a part of a group of leaders working to mitigate the risk to mental health, child abuse and substance abuse.

During a previous roundtable on mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic, Poppell said during the pandemic there has been a decrease in calls to the DCF Child Abuse Hotline, which is not because of a decrease in cases, but rather because with schools closed, teachers are not reporting child abuse.

"The child abuse hotline, every year when school lets out, sees around a 25% reduction in calls," he said. "That's because our number one mandatory reporter of child abuse, are our teachers." 

Not only are children experiencing a big change due to the pandemic but also veterans and elderly who are used to having in-person contact with family, friends and their support network.

The Centers for Disease Control said you may experience increased stress during this pandemic and included the following ways to get help.

Get immediate help in a crisis

Find a health care provider or treatment for substance use disorder and mental health

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RELATED: ' ... Everyone is enduring this crisis': Florida Gov. DeSantis, First Lady discuss COVID-19's impact on mental health during roundtable discussion

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