Editorials

Help mentally ill Floridians

Catherine Daniels is living with guilt too deep for most parents to fathom. On Valentine’s Day weekend, her 25-year-old son, Lavall Hall, diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, had an episode in the wee hours.

As she had done many times since mental illness began to torment her son in childhood, Ms. Daniels called Miami Gardens police. She wanted help controlling him. She wanted him back in a mental ward. She wanted to protect him from himself. He had no medical insurance, and having him involuntarily institutionalized, or Baker Acted, was the only way to get him care.

But something went fatally wrong.

Her son was carrying a broomstick handle; officers arrived and confronted him. Within a horrible few seconds, an officer shot and killed Mr. Hall.

“If I hadn’t called police, my son would still be alive,” Ms. Daniels told the Miami Herald Editorial Board in a visit last week. The family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Miami Gardens. An investigation is under way.

Mr. Hall is a vivid example of the plight of mentally ill residents in Florida, where comprehensive care is dismal, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI. The Miami chapter plans to hold a mental-heath summit on May 2 at the University of Miami. “Stop the Stigma” will push for an end to shame and silence about mental illness, offering hope to the families who, as the caretakers of mentally ill relatives, feel overwhelmed and alone.

“We are the boots on the ground fighting our way through a dysfunctional, fragmented and inadequate system,” Susan Racher, president of the local NAMI chapter told the Editorial Board. Her son has tackled mental illness. She spoke flanked by NAMI members with similar experiences.

Florida ranks 49th in the nation in funding mental-health services, spending $40 per person, compared with a national average of $122.

An estimated 3.9 million Floridians have some type of mental-health challenge. NAMI and other advocates say Florida needs to stop providing hodgepodge care for mentally ill residents only in emergencies, which can turn into law-enforcement issues with prison sentences or tragedies, like the death of Mr. Hall.

“Mental illness need not be a death sentence, a jail sentence or end in a homeless outcome,” Ms. Racher said. She’s right. And that is the battle cry the group will take to their summit, which they hope will be a springboard to get real action from Florida lawmakers.

Florida Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, told the Board on Friday that state lawmakers, for the first time in years, are talking mental healthcare reform.

They have a chance to set things right. Some $50 million in new money to address mental health and substance abuse is being offered up. And legislation introduced in the Senate last week would overhaul the state’s irresponsibly underfunded mental-health system, tapping more Medicaid dollars for the “severely and persistently” mentally ill and expanding managed-care options.

“We have to have the conversation about getting the mentally ill out of the shadows; this is an illness no different from cancer or diabetes. If you take medication — you get better,” Mr. García said.

If lawmakers fail to take action to bring Florida’s healthcare system out of the 1970s, they will have failed everyone who must deal with the consequences of untreated mental illness, and that’s all of us, pretty much.

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