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Polk County agencies collaborate to address mental health crisis

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Posted at 6:50 PM, Nov 04, 2021

POLK COUNTY, Fla. — A new report is highlighting Polk County’s struggle with a mental crisis.

“I was in a dark place that I didn’t realize that I was in,” said Richard Shank.

Shank has learned to deal with his mental illness through programs provided by Polk County’s Peace River Center.

“It doesn’t have to control, you can control your mental illness,” Shank said.

Peace River Centeris the first line of defense for many people experiencing a mental health crisis. The nonprofit has a 24-hour hotline and provides inpatient and outpatient services.

"Mental health is a priority need in our community. It's one of those things that people don’t like to talk about. You're much more willing to say I need to go to the doctor than I need to see a therapist or a psychiatrist,” said Candace Barnes, Chief Operating Officer of Peace River Center.

A big hurdle in getting help is having access to it. Peace River Center has opened a new outpatient behavioral health location in Lake Wales to reach more people in need of services.

They’ve also partnered with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to provide counselors to help with mental health crisis calls.

“They can do crisis response by themselves in tandem with an officer, if an officer wants to go, or they can do follow-ups of individuals that we’ve identified that need follow up services,” Barnes said.

A recent report by Polk Vision showed that one in ten residents said they needed mental health care, but did not receive it in the last year.

Polk Vision is a community-led collaboration of organizations, businesses, government, and individuals to ensure the implementation of Polk County's community vision.

The report comes after a year-long study looking into the county’s struggles with the mental health system, including lack of funding.

“When you look at where Florida is in the rankings of how much we spend per capita on mental health compared to other states, we’re pretty far behind,” said Alice Nuttall, Associate Vice President of Behavioral Health at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center.

Nuttall is also the report's co-chair. She tells ABC Action News there is also a need for mental health providers.

Data from Polk Vision shows there is one mental health provider for every 1,190 people in Polk County, compared to 670 to one in the state. Nationally the ratio is 310 to one.

Lakeland Regional Health has made a $46 million investment into building a new behavioral health center that will address this.

“We'll have 96 beds when we get into our new facility which is very exciting but we’re also adding a lot of additional outpatient services, not just growing the number of providers and therapists,” Nuttall said.

Nuttall said this coordinated effort by hospitals, behavioral health agencies, and law enforcement is what will help fix the mental health system.

If you need help you can call Peace River Center’s 24-Hour Emotional Support and Crisis Line: 863-519-3744 or toll-free at 800-627-5906.