All last week I anticipated Friday’s inaugural Behavioral Health Symposium at the College of Central Florida.
Here’s why: The more I looked into the issues of mental health and addiction treatment, the more I saw a disconnect between the decision-makers and our community groups in the trenches dealing with these real-life challenges every day.
Why, I wondered, wouldn’t we rely on local experts to help steer the boat instead of only commissioners and interested parties? I wrote a Chronicle column about it.
Turns out Commissioner Rebecca Bays had the same idea. Even as the county prepares to nail down the details of what’s now being called a "behavioral health" center, Bays and the chamber of commerce invited community leaders to the symposium to hash it out.
I have a few thoughts:
— First off, just a well-planned and thought-out event. Bays, plus staffs from the county and chamber, put together a packed agenda with numerous panels designed to get to the crux of the matter in a direct and informative way. They succeeded.
— Over 80 people attended who represent organizations and agencies that deal directly with people in need. You won’t find more fierce advocates than those who protect lives of the disfranchised, abused, and mentally ill. These people don’t take no for an answer and they stand up to bullies. They’re exactly who we want at the table.
— Commissioner Jeff Kinnard is pushing for the county to formally commit $2 million toward the LifeStream project, which we used to call a Baker Act facility but are now going with the euphemism, “behavioral health” facility. It’s on today’s County Commission agenda.
During the last board meeting, Kinnard and Bays debated passionately for their points. Kinnard focused on the money commitment, Bays on the services. They’re both right. This project needs to get off the ground. And we’re having a community conversation about what that looks like.
No reason why they can’t take place at the same time.
— Finally, a shout-out to Commissioner Bays, who sort of stumbled into this thing by being the board’s representative on the innocuous-sounding Public Safety Coordinating Council.
As the name suggests, the council is composed of anyone whose professional lives touch the court system. It’s a big net.
Bays heard frustration and concern that organized treatment for mental illness/addiction in Citrus County was not consistent at best. During commission meetings, she has argued against the focus on a "Baker Act" facility, saying it's her belief being committed does more harm than good in many cases.
She chaired a meeting, the one I attended in the courthouse jury assembly room, that included numerous community groups in the thick of things. She asked each to explain its biggest barrier, and all complied. We left anticipating the next step, which occurred Friday with the symposium.
This is how important I consider this subject: Bigger than roads, growth and taxes. A community that takes care of its most vulnerable citizens can tackle the other stuff confidently because elected leaders have their priorities straight.
That symposium was the best single-day partnership of local government, business, and community — on a topic of supreme urgency — that I can recall. I walked around the room during breaks and spoke to a lot of people. They were all saying the same thing: “Wow.”
(Not to slight him, because this was also Josh Wooten at his finest. That guy leads by example the best community-conscious chamber in Florida.)
Let me tell you something: Having a county commissioner in front of this effort is HUGE. Several members of the senior staff attended Friday. It’s proof to attendees the county means business.
This issue covers so many people in a wide range of circumstances. The barriers often seem too high, the answers elusive.
If any effort needed a county commission champion, it’s this one. Bays -- along with the Chamber of Commerce -- is that champion.
A healthy community openly embraces its biggest challenge. An extraordinary one solves it.
After Friday, my money’s on the latter.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.