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Gulf & Main Magazine

Unmasking The Epidemic: It Takes a Village to Help Kids

May 07, 2021 02:50PM ● By KATHY MONTGOMERY

Four years ago, a passionate grassroots group decided to shine a spotlight on the lack of mental health services for an estimated 46,000 children in need of care in Southwest Florida—and do something about it—by creating Kids’ Minds Matter. Before the COVID-19 pandemic and racial and social unrest that isolated families and disrupted lives in 2020, children were already in crisis without enough pediatric mental health providers to meet their needs.

Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed every May since 1949 throughout The United States. Thus it is timely to note that, if left untreated, 50 percent of students ages 14 and over with mental health symptoms drop out of school, and 70 percent of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental health condition. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24 in the U.S.

When Kids’ Minds Matter was created, wait times to get appointments with pediatric mental health professionals at Fort Myers-based Golisano Children’s HospitalGolisano Children’s Hospital’s outpatient behavioral health clinic were about 12 months. Early efforts to add professionals reduced those wait times to three to four months. But by January of 2021, those wait times had increased to eight months—in part because of increased awareness as well as need because of the pandemic.

In 2018, Golisano Children’s Hospital’s behavioral health team saw 4,541 patient visits. In 2019, the visits nearly doubled to 8,132, and in 2020, visits increased to 12,301 visits. At Golisano Children’s Hospital, Baker Acts increased from 154 in 2019 to 210 in 2020. Baker Acts are emergency situations in which a person has “exhibited some extreme behavior that insinuates a mental illness, and without care or treatment, may result in harm to themselves or to others.”

“Prior to COVID-19, we had a mental health crisis,” explains Dr. Emad Salman, chief physician executive and vice president of operations at Golisano Children’s Services. “Now with a complete change in their whole lifestyle, we are approaching the tipping point as far as mental health is concerned for children. And the need is growing,” he adds.

However, Kids’ Minds Matter continues to make sure that awareness and solutions are on the rise. Community financial support through Kids’ Minds Matter programs have included the following:

  • Mental Health Mondays, a Facebook Live series that connects Lee Health partners and Southwest Florida mental health advocates with the region’s (and nationwide) families with information, support and resources, reaching 1.2 million people since April of 2020. 
  • Mental Health Navigators, launched as a pilot program in Lee and Collier schools in March of 2020. Navigators are experienced family members who provide peer mentoring and support to students. In the first six months of the program, they dealt with such challenges as mood dysregulation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, autism, impulse control behavior, psychotic disorder and one student with suicidal ideations at school. Intervention by navigators has improved grades and attendance for students helped.
  • Mental Health First Aid Training and Parenting groups have reached more than 1,000 people, helping the community and families to recognize signs of mental health issues and empowering them to help themselves.  
  • Seventeen mental health agencies collaborated on a community initiative called Healthy Minds, to provide free resources and screenings for mental health resilience, support and well-being because of the pandemic.  
  • To promote collaboration, 20 behavioral health organizations participated in the second annual regional mental health fair.
  • Teenagers now have access to a free LGBTQ+ Youth Peer Support Group—thanks to a partnership with Visuality and Kids’ Minds Matter.

A five-year regional and collaborative strategic plan inspired by Kids’ Minds Matter and facilitated by Golisano Children’s Hospital includes creating two new satellite clinics and an autism testing center. It also includes creating an adolescent behavioral health intensive treatment program to reduce Baker Acts, and the FGCU Pediatric Behavioral Health Scholars Program to help train more local mental health professionals. 

“We have great collaborations throughout the region,” says Dr. Paul Simeone, vice president and medical director of behavioral health at Lee Health. “Kids’ Minds Matter as a social force is a real advocate for mental and behavioral health problems and solutions in the community. Real change happens when we face the truth about the situation we’re in. We absolutely cannot do this alone.”

For more information about the programs and collaborations, as well as resources for finding help or donating, visit

Kathy Montgomery has been writing for more than 30 years about Southwest Florida and the important issues facing the community.