Finding mental health treatment is not always easy. The Northwest Florida Mental Health Task Force wants to change that

Work is underway on a year-long project to address various areas of mental health in the Florida Panhandle. This is the first of a four-part update on the work of the Northwest Florida Mental Health Task Force.

Stephanie Bollinger is 35 years old and has battled depression her entire life.

“(I) was blinded 11 years ago by a suicide attempt — a gunshot wound to the head,” she said. “Three years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar-2.”

After starting treatment, she felt that she had begun to lead an optimistic and healthy lifestyle. But in fact it was not so.

“I was drinking my way through life and numbing the pain I still felt until 2019,” she explained. “I had a relapse and was very scared of what I could do.”

Her treatment odyssey landed her in a pair of mental health facilities, where she was diagnosed with major depression. She was sent home on medication and got better for a while. She then says it “went downhill” very quickly. At this point, Bollinger called the Mobile Response Team at the Lakeview Center.

“Between my therapist and my psychiatrist at the time at The Summit Group, they helped diagnose me with bipolar-2, where they put me on a mood stabilizer,” she said. “But I’ve been through a few different medications because not all of them have worked completely for me. I’m actually a few months into a new one now. So far, things are going very well with this.”

The Mental Health Task Force has been working this year to develop a plan for care, focusing on areas such as prevention, intervention and crisis management.

“The main goals for the task force have really been the alignment of behavioral health services, particularly mental health services in the Pensacola Santa Rosa area, and smoother access to care,” said Dr. David Josephs, Clinical Director at Lakeview Center in Pensacola. .

Because the work began during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says the initial focus was on humanizing those who might have mental health or substance abuse issues — one leading to the other.

Dr. David Josephs of Lakeview Center

“It could be me, it could be you, it could be our sister, it could be our brother, it could be our neighborhood,” Josephs said. “Let’s approach it in the sense of let’s do this better. I think what has come out of it is the willingness of partners to put their shoulders to the grindstone and help make a better product.”

One of the lessons learned so far, Josephs says, is from emergency medical services representatives — sometimes it’s hard, if not impossible, to know what’s right in front of us.

“The rate at which we have deaths from opiates in this community,” he said. “While we treat it as a health crisis, it’s often not even seen as a mental health crisis. A whopping 70% to 90% of individuals who have behavioral health problems that require emergency intervention also have significant behavioral problems. substance use.”

As work has progressed from the task force, Josephs says the meetings have covered a variety of issues and topics — such as improved ways to care for the homeless.

“There’s a mechanism now to track where there are beds or capacity for people to stay overnight and also any issues that come up,” Josephs said. “Certainly, one of the most recent is the changes in the availability of reception facilities.”

Very few, if any, stones have passed without returning from the working group. Discussions have been somewhat comprehensive, including discussions of a Federally Qualified Health Center and services to provide holistic treatment, along with health care treatment and behavioral treatment for drugs and alcohol.

“Most everything is affected,” he said. “I think now is the tactic to achieve it. Not that everything comes down to money, but a lot of things come down to money. It’s the mechanism for prioritizing that funding and aligning around how we stay focused on results.”

When the task force’s work is complete and the data is made public, Josephs says there’s no reason why Escambia and Santa Rosa counties can’t become the model for behavioral health services offered throughout Florida.

“Look at our results. Look at what we’ve done as a community as we’ve come together to address mental health needs,” said Josephs. “To support that, to make it smarter and to do it where it’s value-added for the people we serve.”

Northwest Florida Mental Health Task Force

And when all is said and done, Josephs hopes the Mental Health Task Force can reach out to people who need help and aren’t afraid to ask for it.

“With Lakeview, we have mobile response teams now. We have mobile response teams for homeless individuals that help not be traumatized,” he said. “And that your community leaders believe this is a priority and have taken steps to cover it for you as a taxpayer.”

For Stephanie Bollinger, she now works as a web accessibility analyst for a Pensacola firm. Her counseling continues, but in a less formal setting.

“I have therapy over the phone with my therapist, so she doesn’t even look at me,” Bollinger said with a light laugh. “So I just feel like I’m talking to a friend and I just feel a lot more comfortable that way.”

Earlier this year, Bollinger was a speaker at a Mental Health Symposium at the University of West Florida. She spoke of an abusive childhood and inadequate mental health treatment.

“I was in therapy. But it was the therapy that the government offered me and it wasn’t very helpful for me,” she said. “The point was: just not to give up on myself. Even after my suicide attempts, every time I survived, I knew I was here for a reason. I haven’t stopped. I won’t stop until I feel like I’m stronger than the disease I have.”

And for those facing similar crises, Stephanie Bollinger has a word of advice: do your research.

“Be smarter about what goes on inside your head,” she said. “Be stronger than that. My main thing was I was never going to let him control me. I’m going to control him.”

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