JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The deaths of 21 people at a Texas elementary school are just one of the recent tragedies highlighting the need to improve mental health in all communities.
Locally, mental health experts just completed a study called the Community Health Needs Assessment, which identifies the key health needs and issues in North Florida.
Access to health care, poverty and chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes are the main factors locally that lead to mental health deterioration in North Florida. The Health Planning Council of Northeast Florida collected data from a five-county area -- Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns -- from 1,300 residents, and in the end, the council developed an action plan in hopes of saving lives.
Mental health care issues in North Florida continue to disproportionately impact certain demographic groups, including seniors, veterans, members of the LGBTQ community and minorities. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated North Florida’s plaguing problem of providing mental health resources to the people who need them the most.
″The problem is bigger than the health care system can handle on its own. This is a societal issue,” said Ann-Marie Knight, vice president of community engagement and chief diversity officer for UF Health Jacksonville. “When it comes to the health and well-being of someone’s mental and behavioral health, it’s not as simple as a pill that someone can take.”
Knight says the CHNA is an opportunity for communities to pause and see what’s working and what is not. She says access to mental health is North Florida’s No. 1 issue.
“Access could be a plethora of things,” Knight said. “It could be access to primary care, specialty care, but there’s also access to, you know, good housing, or fair, financially decent housing, and fresh fruits and vegetables and transportation.”
Knight says the CHNA reveals that it’s not just local health systems that need to address mental health. She says there’s a desperate need to find ways to empower other organizations to recognize and respond. One of the action plans is to create what’s called blue zones, which help to create a healthy environment.
“Do we have safe spaces for exercise and engaging in the community or is health access equitable? Why would one group have a high prevalence of a particular disease? What can we do differently for that population?” Knight said.
A deep dive into the data reveals that life expectancy rates in every Northeast Florida county except for St. Johns are lower than the state average. And out of the five-county area, when it comes to the health of the population, Baker and Duval counties rank among the lowest in the state.
Knight says it’s key for other local organizations and businesses to review the data from the CHNA and put action plans into place.
“Just pick any industry, it doesn’t matter what it is, right? I’m not saying you have to partner with a hospital to execute a plan,” Knight said. “But maybe you look at your plans, make sure there are resources internally for your staff when they’re dealing with day-to-day stressors.”
North Florida’s five health systems and 13 hospital campuses are all in partnership and using the data from the assessment to meet the needs of the community. The assessment also looks at what programs are working, which ones aren’t and what can.