Florida first lady announces $2M in mental health funding for rural county schools

Casey DeSantis speaks at Tampa General Hospital in June 2019 about funding for mental health programs.

The Florida Department of Education is making $2 million available to rural counties across the state to increase access to telehealth to provide mental health services for schoolchildren.

“I'm excited today to announce to 18 of the rural counties across the state of Florida we’ll be issuing $2 million to those rural districts to help students there increase access to tele- and mental-health services,” Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis said during a Monday news conference at the governor’s mansion.

The money is available from federal CARES Act stimulus funding and will be directed to rural counties that have lower rates of internet connectivity and have limited access to health-care professionals.

The first lady was joined by school superintendents whose districts will benefit from the funding, including Dixie County Superintendent Mike Thomas; Madison County Superintendent Shirley Joseph; and Taylor County Superintendent Danny Glover, Jr. State Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Mary Mahew, who took part in the news conference, said there has been a 300 percent increase in the use of telehealth since the COVID-19 pandemic began, something that she described as a “slight silver lining.”

Mayhew also said timeliness is key in mental-health and substance-abuse services and being able to respond to people who reach out for help.

“The bridge that we have created with tele-mental health ensures that that door is opened that much more quickly," Mayhew said.

The Legislature in 2018 increased funding for mental health services at schools by about $69 million after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, with the amount increased to $75 million in 2019 and to $100 million in 2020. Monday’s announcement was lauded by Natalie Kelly, CEO of the Florida Association of Managing Entities.

Kelly’s group represents seven agencies and a network of more than 300 behavioral healthcare providers.

“Telehealth is one way to reach more people who need behavioral health services by removing obstacles, such as transportation issues, and this additional funding that will be directed to Florida’s rural counties will go a long way in helping Floridians lead healthier, more productive lives,” Kelly said in a prepared statement. 

The 18 counties that will receive the funding are: Bradford, Calhoun, DeSoto, Dixie, Glades, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Hardee, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Taylor, Union, and Washington.