High-tech counseling comes to storm-struck schools – ‘Think of FaceTime with a mental health provider’

Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis announces "telemental" health program at Bay High School in Panama City. Source: governor's office.

Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis announced that 63 “telemental” health portals will be available to offer counseling to storm-traumatized students in the six Panhandle counties most damaged by Hurricane Michael when public schools reopen next week.

“Think of FaceTime with a mental health provider,” DeSantis said during a news conference in a hallway at Bay High School in Panama City.  “The parent or legal guardian can also speak with their child and be part of that conversation by simply using their cellphone.”

Parents unable to participate in real time could review summaries of the counseling sessions, she said. Guidance counselors will refer kids for counseling, with signed approval by parents.

“This is 100 percent HIPA-compliant, because privacy, of course, is one of the utmost important aspects of this,” DeSantis said, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which protects the privacy of patient records.

“We understand that this is just one piece of the puzzle – that we have a lot more that we need to do to make sure that people are getting the help that they deserve.”

Eric Hall, chancellor for innovation for the state Department of Education, appeared at the news conference via one of the telehealth devices.

The table-top machine features a camera, a microphone, and a screen about the size of a computer tablet. One device will be placed in each school within the disaster area, and school staff trained in their operation. During counseling sessions, each student will be alone in the room, connected only to a counselor and parent.

“Actually, research shows that kids, you know, they’re sometimes a little bit more comfortable when they’re talking into a phone,” the first lady said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and members of his administration, including the first lady, have been traveling to the Michael zone since his first full day in office in early January. Additionally, Ms. DeSantis has been traveling the state on a “Hope for Healing” listening tour on mental health.

The first lady first announced plans for the portals on June 26, after her husband signed legislation expanding access to telehealth services in Florida. Meanwhile, Attorney General Ashley Moody’s roundtable discussions about mental health and the criminal justice system have exposed shortages of trained counselors.

Perhaps 40 percent of the health care providers in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Jackson, and Liberty counties reportedly have lost staff since Michael hit on Oct. 10. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Times has reported that one-third of Bay County’s 30,000 school children suffer from depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

“A lot of people are suffering in the wake of Michael, and especially our young citizens,” the first lady said.

Full recovery from the damage Michael did remains far off – and Florida Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell noted that the news conference’s host campus was still undergoing repairs. “The big challenge we wanted to tackle – and I think that we’ve done it – is to create true access to care for the kids that need it. They don’t have to drive out-of-county to see someone,” he said. “We’re talking about immediate care, right where you need it.”

“What we know is that to provide timely access to services, schools are the best location,” said Mary Mayhew, secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration. The Panhandle project, she said, is intended for replication elsewhere in the state.

“This is a model for people to get meaningful help,” DeSantis said. “At the end of the day, some people just need the access to be able to talk to people.”

Also regarding storm recovery, the U.S. Department of Education plans to position a disaster recovery team in Tallahassee to coordinate work by state, local, and federal agencies, DeSantis said. “Their role will be to ensure that critical infrastructure at our schools is restored, and to ensure that students are physically and mentally recovering from the disaster.”

Additionally, the state Department of Emergency Management has posted a job description for a mental health recovery officer “to collaborate, to come here to work with all the facets of the community, to make sure that all the people are getting the mental health services that they deserve,” she said.

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