There is a wonderful scene in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” that speaks not only to our times but to the need for action in Sarasota County.
With the Civil War nearly won and the South ready to capitulate, Lincoln’s advisers are telling him there is no need to continue to pursue passage of the constitutional amendment to end slavery, which hangs by just a few Congressional votes.
Lincoln, usually measured with his Cabinet, slams his hand on the meeting table. “We’re stepped out upon the world’s stage now, now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands! Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment.”
“Now now now!”
In my nearly two decades in Sarasota County working on philanthropic causes, never have I seen such an urgent need. The exacerbation that the pandemic has brought to this issue is simply astonishing.
COVID-19 is showing signs of ebbing and now is the time for marshalling the resources we will need to deal with what we will find in the realm of mental health when that tidal wave finally rolls completely back. We know there has been significant destruction — and we know the worst of it has been wrought upon those most vulnerable: our youth.
Pre-pandemic, one in four Americans had a mental health or substance abuse disorder. In the wake of COVID-19 and the isolation and disruption it brought, that number has likely climbed to 50 percent, according to an analysis by McKinsey & Co.
This rings true with all of us because we have all either been touched by it or we know someone dealing with the issue. We all have heard time and again about struggling children and about struggling parents, dealing with the financial and societal pressures brought by this last year of economic chaos and social isolation.
We already are seeing inklings of that devastation upon our children in Sarasota County, with the Child Protection Center reporting that its staff have treated more children with suicidal ideation now than in the past 10 years. Child sexual abuse has risen 23%, the CPC reports, with more than 50 children on a waiting list for care because of the size and growth of the problem and the lack of resources.
How many children should end their lives or end others’ before we see the wisdom of tackling this issue on the front end – not by hardening our schools and increasing our force of police – but by treating the mental health struggles that initiated these actions before they ever become a crisis.
The best vehicle for that is a mental health taxing district that would set aside money to significantly bolster existing services and to allow the flexibility to address other specific needs.
A scan of Sarasota County’s current mental health services conducted by the University of South Florida at the behest of Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation already has established what is needed: a unified system, in addition to more family support, more education and more efforts to end the cultural stigma of mental health issues.
One-tenth of one mill of levy by Sarasota County would generate $4 million for this work. For the owner of a $350,000 home, that is $35 per year.
We’re a generous community, especially toward our youth, as evidenced by taxpayers’ unparalleled support for local schools. Those same taxpayers — when queried by the county about the proposal for a mental health taxing district — expressed a willingness to spend far beyond that small levy to deal with the current crisis.
This is not the time for additional study. This is not the time for preparing a detailed plan when there already are dozens of organizations doing the essential work with the crisis already upon us.
This is a time for action, for providing a dedicated funding source to address a problem that affects every other facet of people’s lives in our community.
Passage of the taxing district funding source by the county commissioners would leave more than a year to put together an able group of experts to map out precise moves in knitting together and filling the gaps in our current system to address the mental health crisis — and it would remove any doubt about our leaders’ commitment.
But the time to act is now.
Now, now, now.
Blood has been spilt to afford us this moment.
Teri A Hansen is President|CEO of Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation