FORT MYERS, Fla. - Lizandra studied the paper on her desk, but her mind was not on freshman math. She was thinking of ways to commit suicide. Maybe she could use scissors. A pencil. A knife.
Later she searched online for information on the anti-depressant she was taking; she has forgotten the name, there were so many. She read that suicidal thoughts could be a side effect and wondered, Why would they give me this?
At her next appointment at SalusCare, Lee County’s safety net mental health provider, she mentioned the thoughts. The provider switched her medication, she said, and gave her another that made her feel drugged up.
“I didn’t feel like myself,” said Lizandra, now 18. “They made me take so many different ones.”
Since middle school, the North Fort Myers teen had taken medication and received counseling a few times a month. Yet, she didn’t start healing until arriving at the PACE Center for Girls in Lee County, an academic and counseling program where she thrived.
“I actually have dreams and inspiration, and I never had that,” Lizandra said.
PACE requested her last name not be used because of the mental health information she provided.
For years, Lizandra was bullied in middle school. She blamed herself for her parents’ split. She struggled with a learning disability. A physician referred her to SalusCare, where she was put on medication.
“When I went to SalusCare, the vibe was so not good. I didn’t like it because I felt like I was a nutcase because all the people there. This one dude, he was trying to get close to me, and I was like, ‘I feel very uncomfortable right now.’ ”
She saw a counselor a few times a month but then stopped.
“It wasn’t really helping. Then she had to move,” she said. “They put me with this other person . and I was like, ‘No, I’m not talking to this person. I don’t feel comfortable.’ ”
Her depression deepened during her first year at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral. At one point, she asked to see a freshman counselor and was sent to find another counselor at lunch only to talk to that counselor a few minutes. She ended up calling her grandfather to pick her up from school.
That year, she began drinking, smoking and skipping school. At one point, she took Ibuprofen to try to kill herself.
“I went to sleep, and I woke up and was like, ‘Damn, I’m still here.’ ”
An Island Coast official suggested PACE; she began attending in 2017. Early on, Lizandra told a PACE counselor she wanted to ease off medication.
“We would never really advise someone to get off medication, but she felt like she was getting enough support that ultimately that was an OK choice for her,” said Kendra Pugh, Lee PACE’s social services coordinator.
Outside PACE, Lizandra felt the focus was on medicating rather than healing.
“They kept medicating her, but they could not get to anywhere close in the counseling to come to the core of the issues she was having to deal with and the trauma,” said Meg Geltner, Lee PACE’s executive director. “And that’s very typical. We see that a lot here.”
“All the time,” Pugh said.
“All the time,” Geltner repeated.
With limited mental health providers accepting insurance and Medicaid, access to quality and intensive outpatient treatment can be difficult.
“Access to care is the biggest gap that we have. That can be too long of wait lists at one agency, it can be lack of transportation,” Pugh said. “I’ve heard of families having to wait months for an appointment and then the car breaks down on the way to the appointment and then they’ve lost that appointment for another three to four months.”
“We’re not knocking any other agency. I think it’s just what the state of it is there’s a lot of people who need the services and there’s very few options for services.”
At PACE, girls are assigned an on-site counselor. If girls request to see their counselor, they’ll likely see that counselor the same day or they can talk to another counselor on staff, PACE officials said.
“We allocate the time needed to address the things that need to be addressed,” Pugh said. “It’s not rare to see a girl multiple times a week.”
Lizandra quickly warmed to PACE, where counseling helped get to the root of her depression. She took a long break from social media, cut toxic friendships from her life, and focused on herself.
Her attendance is more than 85 percent, she has A’s and B’s, and a part-time job at a dollar store. She’s thinking about a career as a pediatric oncology nurse.
“I felt like a wilted rose before,” Lizandra said.
Now she feels strong and beautiful; it’s a fairy tale ending.
“Do you know the rose in the ‘Beauty and the Beast’? It’s like that.”
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