Community Foundation Tampa Bay collaborates on solutions for region’s mental health access barriers


For more than 30 years, the nonprofit Community Foundation Tampa Bay has been on a  mission to identify some of the region’s most pressing health, economic, educational and social issues and work with other community partners for solutions.

In Florida, a state national nonprofit Mental Health America ranks 49th in the country for mental health access, working to better connect residents to mental health services is a natural fit for the Community Foundation’s mission.

“We are right at the bottom and we cannot continue to ignore the fact that as a state and a  community we are not doing enough to address the mental health of individuals,” says Community Foundation Tampa Bay Senior Director, Community Investment Katie Shultz. “Because mental health affects every race, every socioeconomic status. Everybody is impacted by mental health.” 

The solution-focused nonprofit is, in fact, working to address the issue on multiple fronts. The Community Foundation offers free mental health first aid courses to nonprofits, community organizations and schools to train their staff on how to identify the signs and symptoms of mental illness and addiction and how to link individuals to treatment services. The organization also provides grants to area nonprofits to financially support the mental health service and programs they offer to the community. Recently the Community Foundation awarded 10 area organizations grants totaling more than $200,000 for mental health programs. That includes $50,000 to nonprofit Tampa Bay Thrives to expand its “Let’s Talk” phone line program that helps connect individuals to counseling and services.

Helping to navigate the system, access services and remove the stigma

Tampa Bay Thrives was launched in 2019 when 30 stakeholders, including hospital system leaders, from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties, came together under the leadership of BayCare CEO Tommy Inzina to work together to improve mental health outcomes. 

Tampa Bay Thrives President and CEO Carrie Zeisse says the organization helps individuals navigate the mental health care system to access services and works to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Zeisse says the social isolation of the COVID pandemic has only increased the needs Tampa Bay Thrives works to address. 

She says from 2019 to 2021, research Mental Health America conducted in Hillsborough County shows a 664 percent increase in the number of people seeking screenings for anxiety and 472 percent for depression. The severity of the condition in people screening positive for bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression increases by 661 percent. Meanwhile, a Tampa Bay Thrives survey shows that more than two-thirds of the respondents are experiencing difficulty and significant challenges navigating the system and tapping resources.

Against that backdrop, the Let’s Talk phone line launches in July 2021 to connect individuals to behavioral health providers in the community. The current expansion Community Foundation Tampa Bay has helped fund increases telehealth options for care, including short-term telehealth bridge counseling for people facing long wait times to get an appointment. 

“We often hear from people who get an appointment that is a month away,” Zeisse says. “That can feel too long. So this expansion provides up to four sessions with a counselor. That individual will help you figure out how to stay stable and manage your symptoms so you don’t get worse while you are waiting. If you need it, there will also be a connection to psychiatry through USF Health so you can refill your meds, as long as they are not controlled substances. We don’t want people to not be able to get a refill on their medication while they are waiting to see their doctor and end up in an emergency room. That short-term bridge counseling is really to help an individual stay stable until they get to their appointment and continue their care.”

The Let’s Talk program expansion also links those seeking help with an appointment at one of 10 local AdventHealth Express Care at Walgreens locations. There, a staff member will assess their needs and provide a referral to a telehealth counselor if needed. The increased access to telehealth options also includes a referral to a licensed counselor at Tampa General’s Urgent Care powered by Fast Track on  Water Street in Tampa to help navigate next steps. 

For the uninsured and underinsured, Let’s Talk offers a connection to a licensed clinical social worker at Northside Behavioral Health Center for in-person help.

To help remove the stigma around discussing and seeking help for mental health issues, Tampa Bay Thrives’ public roll-out of the Let’s Talk initiative expansion also includes the introduction of a public ambassador for the organization. Colony Reeves, a Tampa native who stars on the Netflix program “Selling Tampa,” shares her own experiences with depression and the benefits of therapy in an effort to encourage other people to seek help. 

“One thing that stood out to me about Tampa Bay Thrives is you have these external competitors come together and collaborate to address a problem,” Shultz, with Community Foundation Tampa Bay, says. “You have multiple health systems that are all standing up together and saying this is major in our community and we need to address. To see those health systems all come together and collaborate on this I think really shows the magnitude of the problem. This approach also creates an equitable opportunity for individuals to access mental health services. It does not matter if they have insurance. It does not matter where they live. For us, that was important. This is important to our community.”

She says the grant funding will help launch the short-term bridge counseling program.

“That’s crucial because the longer an individual waits, the worse they often get,” Schultz says. “Prolonged waiting to access mental health can impact your job, your family life, your physical health, every aspect of your life.”
 
Mental health first aid

In addition to the grant funding for mental health services and programs, Community Foundation Tampa Bay and other community partners have also made a national online first aid training and certification program available for free to nonprofits and community organizations in the region. The eight-hour online training program is offered through National Council for Behavioral Health and is intended to teach the signs, symptoms and risk factors of mental illness and addiction, help guide someone in need of help to counseling or self-help resources and build the skills to speak with and assist someone in distress.

The Community Foundation has set aside $300,000 to train up to 5,000 people at nonprofits, community and faith organizations and schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties. 

“Anybody at these organizations we believe should have a mental health first aid certification,” Shultz says. “Similar to first aid and CPR, the intent is not that you become an EMT but to be able to identify and support individuals having a mental health challenge and know how to refer them and how to engage with them. Social service organizations are often interacting with people who are having mental health challenges and need to be able to identify and understand what to do. Not to be a clinician. We are not training everyone to be a mental health clinician.”

So far, 1,500 people have gone through the training. St. Petersburg nonprofit Creative Clay, which provides creative, educational and vocational programs in the arts to adults with disabilities and others, has had its staff go through the training program.

“In September of 2021, when I heard that Mental Health First Aid was being offered through the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, I called immediately to get more information on how to get our staff trained at Creative Clay,” Creative Clay CEO Kim Dohrman says in a email. “We scheduled the training for October and we took an in-service day so that we could all be together to take the training. Although we had a few teaching artists Zoom in for the training, I was glad most of us were together. All of us have been impacted by mental health challenges in our lives, whether it is us personally, a family member or a friend. Some of us have been impacted by suicide by a loved one, and during that chapter specifically, I felt it was important we were together physically to support one another. The training reminds us that mental health isn't a constant state of being. We all need to be aware of those around us and to recognize the signs of someone going through a mental health challenge. We can't be afraid to reach out to someone we may sense is struggling and if you do nothing else, just be a good listener. I feel the more people who have this training, the healthier our community will be and I applaud the foundation for making this a priority.”

For more information go to Community Foundation Tampa Bay, Mental health first aid,
Tampa Bay Thrives, Mental Health America access to care rankings

To contact the Let’s Talk line call 844-YOU-OKAY for free and confidential support available 24/7.

 

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather, and Florida's wealth of outdoor festivals.