Dr. Laureen Pagel: Florida leads the nation on innovative student mental health programs

A pencil and ink drawing “Color of Loneliness The Depression” by the late Joseph "Scott" DiPardo on display at Side Street Gallery in Colonial Heights.
A pencil and ink drawing “Color of Loneliness The Depression” by the late Joseph "Scott" DiPardo on display at Side Street Gallery in Colonial Heights.

Florida’s public schools are among the best in the nation, ranking third for K-12 achievement according to a 2021 report. Our schools are preparing young people to enter college or the workforce equipped with the academic skills they need to succeed. But academics are not the only place Florida is leading the way.

The nation is in a widespread and deepening youth mental health crisis. Approximately 50% of all mental illness begins by age 14, and 1 in 4 adolescents experience mental disorders that result in severe impairment. New data released by the CDC show the situation is increasingly urgent for teenage girls; in 2021, nearly 1 in 3 seriously considered suicide, a 60% increase from a decade ago.

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Florida is not immune to these statistics. But Florida is fighting back. In October, first lady Casey DeSantis and the state Board of Education announced a “groundbreaking shift … from the traditional, stigma-laden mental health education model to an empowering new model based on resiliency.”

Tragically, this valuable effort began in the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In response, the Legislature unanimously passed a school safety bill signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott. The legislation includes a requirement that all school personnel receive youth mental health awareness training, and the state selected Youth Mental Health First Aid as the program to implement.

Talkable Communities, a collaboration of five nonprofit mental health centers in northern Florida, works to build happier and healthier communities by connecting people to free mental wellness education, including Youth Mental Health First Aid. To date, we have trained nearly 1,400 adults in the program and I can tell you it changes lives.

The eight-hour course is designed to show teachers, school staff, coaches and youth group leaders to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health or substance use problems in young people ages 12 to 18. It emphasizes the importance of early intervention and the involvement of parents and other trusted adults. Most importantly, it teaches how to assist an adolescent in crisis or experiencing a mental health challenge by connecting them with help.

Recently a teacher friend told me two of her middle school students had died by suicide. It was devastating to hear. It also reminded me that suicide survivors — those who contemplated or attempted suicide but did not complete the act — repeatedly say that what made the difference was one person reaching out to show they cared. Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to give adults who work with young people the skills to do just that.

I am proud that Florida is the first in the nation to implement such statewide youth mental health training of school personnel. At a time when there is so much focus on what divides us, strengthening the mental health and well-being of our young people is surely an area that unites all Floridians. Together, we are making every community safer, stronger and more resilient for the future.


Dr. Laureen Pagel, Ph.D., is the CEO of Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare in Yulee.

This guest column is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Times-Union. We welcome a diversity of opinions.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Florida steps up to address mental health crisis with new training