First Lady Casey DeSantis leads initiative against drug abuse, mental health problems

DeSantis
Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis discuss mental health issues with agency heads and lawmakers. Credit: Diane Rado

First Lady Casey DeSantis will spearhead a multi-agency campaign to attack drug abuse and boost mental health treatment in Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife launched the initiative Thursday before an audience of schoolchildren at Roland Park K-8 Magnet School in Tampa, accompanied by the chiefs of the departments of Florida Children and Families, Juvenile Justice, and Education.

Opioid abuse causes 17 deaths each day, the First Lady said.

Gov. DeSantis said: “This is a big, big deal. We have a lot of money across different agencies, but we want to have a singularity of purpose and try to help people address drug abuse and mental health issues effectively here in the state of Florida.”

The “Hope for Healing Florida” initiative will coordinate policy and produce resource guides, financed by corporate partners, for distribution statewide.

“The goal really is to let the good people of Florida know how to get meaningful help in a timely fashion that meets their needs,” Ms. DeSantis said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know what’s out there.”

There’s a website, HopeforHealingFL.com, and plans for an app. “We need a 21st Century upgrade for this crisis,” she said.

Ms. DeSantis said officials will monitor which state programs are working, and which are not. “We need accountability for the nearly $2 billion the state spends on mental health and substance abuse.”

DeSantis has appointed the First Lady to chair his Children and Youth Cabinet, intended to coordinate services to young people.

The event about drug abuse and mental health took a twist when the first couple opened the floor to questions from the press. A Hillsborough County School Board member who wanted to ask a question sparked a testy exchange with Gov. DeSantis.

To anyone watching via the governor’s Facebook live stream, only DeSantis’ side of the exchange was audible. However, Marlene Sokol of the Tampa Bay Times reports, the school board member, Karen Perez, began to complain about the lack of drug and mental health counseling within the public schools.

The governor interrupted: “What’s your question, ma’am? I mean, you’re not a member of the press. … You don’t give a speech – she’s going to take questions. What’s your question?”

Ms. DeSantis took the mic at that point. “I am just so honored and privileged to be in this position, and for the first time in the history of this state, to bring agencies together to better address this issue,” she said – and promised “to take a long look at where the money is being spent.”

In fact, Florida does suffer a dearth of public school counselors, as the Florida Phoenix reported in April – roughly one for every 500 students, according to Department of Education figures. That’s double the caseload recommended by the American School Counselor Association – 250 students to 1 counselor.

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