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Unmasking the Epidemic: Help & hope

Kids’ Minds Matter, Lee Health, to address mental health impacts of COVID-19

By CJ HADDAD - | Mar 11, 2021

Sometimes just knowing there’s someone to reach out to can make all the difference in the world.

That’s why local organizations and community partners are working to break the perceived stigma of mental health via an online platform aimed at unveiling avenues of relief for youths who have struggled with mental fatigue amidst a global pandemic that has turned their developmental years upside down.

On March 18, Kids’ Minds Matter, a unified movement in Southwest Florida under the Lee Health umbrella dedicated to advancing pediatric mental and behavioral health service will host its free “Unmasking the Epidemic” virtual event to help address the mental health impacts to local youth.

“Our children are suffering and keeping up with the growing demand continues to be a challenge,” said Dr. Paul Simeone, Vice President of mental and behavioral health services at Lee Health. “While we have continued to increase our services, programs and support, the need continues to surpass available resources. With ongoing awareness and work to reduce the stigma associated with mental health, more families are calling us to help their children in need.”

According to Lee Health, an estimated 46,000 Southwest Florida children are impacted by mental and behavioral health disorders including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, psychosis, substance abuse, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, all conditions that have been exacerbated by the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic.

In 2017, Golisano Children’s Hospital had more than 6,900 pediatric mental health visits. In 2020, those visits surpassed 16,000. As the pandemic continues, so does the need for local mental health services.

“For years, mental health has not been treated the same as far as willingness to seek help, and if you stop and consider if your child was diagnosed with an illness such as cancer or diabetes, you would not stop them from going to get help. Yet, many families are embarrassed to accept or have it known that their child is struggling,” said Armando Llechu, Chief Officer of Hospital Operations and Women and Children’s Services at Lee Health. “We know the evidence shows that it’s years upon years from when the symptoms start and when these children actually get help. Our hope is that by exposing the fact that this issue is prevalent, that it is everywhere in our community, it will help families understand that this is not about bad kids, this is about children that are suffering from a disease like any other and they need help. And we’re here to help them.”

The keynote speaker for the event is Brad Hunstable, founder of Hayden’s Corner. Hunstable lost his son Hayden to suicide in the middle of the mandated stay-at-home orders on April 17, 2020, just four days before his 13th birthday. His father said Hayden did not struggle with depression, nor did he have a history of mental health problems. His parents attribute Hayden’s emotional suffering to a “perfect storm of routine disruption, social isolation, increased gaming, and a pressure stack of activity cancellations,” all created by the stay-at-home orders in the wake of the pandemic.

Along with Hunstable, local youth from around the county will also share their stories.

“I think he’s going to deliver a very strong message about having the conservation with your kid, a conversation that I know is hard, and heartbreaking, and really difficult to have,” said Alyssa Bostwick, Vice President of Operations and Chief Nurse Executive at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. “My one hope is we can have parents and really anyone that interacts with children in any capacity in their lives to tune in and just listen to his story.

“As well as the stories of the kids that are going to speak at this event, too, and maybe connect with peers that are feeling a certain way and not even know what they way is, but to know that it’s okay and they can seek out an avenue for help.”

Now more than ever, youth need an outlet to help cope with their anxieties, worries and fears. Suicide rates across the country have climbed since the pandemic began and is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds. According to statistics provided by Lee Health, 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and one in six U.S. youth ages 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder each year.

Any child can experience a mental health issue.

“It effects families of all financial classes, all ethnicities, all races,” Llechu said. “It doesn’t matter what your ZIP code is, mental and behavioral health issues are indiscriminate.”

Experts say the issue of youth mental health was already something to be concerned about before COVID-19 arrived. From 2019 to 2020, Golisano alone saw a 36% increase in individuals Baker Acted (including a 65% increase in the first three months of the school year).

The Baker Act allows temporary commitment for those in a mental health crisis who are deemed a danger to themselves or others.

“We had a mental behavioral health problem in this country prior to the pandemic, and the constraints that the pandemic has placed on all of us — personally, socially — escalated those problems,” Llechu said, adding that many children and teens can see the stress and tension in households surrounding financial crisis and other family issues created by coronavirus. “Children are smart and they pay attention and they see what’s happening around them. Add to that the fear and uncertainty of the future — will things return back to what they knew as normal? What happens to their social circles?”

Llechu noted that progress was being made before the pandemic began, but has once again surged.

“The pandemic has exacerbated the issue that already existed. We had a problem. Now we have a bigger problem.”

Cape Coral mother Jeanne Beaulie and her daughter Gabby have experienced what mental health fatigue can result in.

Gabby, who will speak at the virtual event, tried to take her life via overdose at school when she was 13. She now bravely advocates for others dealing with similar obstacles to help them know they’re not alone.

“She decided she wanted to share her story to erase some of the stigma of mental illness and that sometimes people really need to understand that it’s a chemical imbalance and doesn’t have to be shameful,” Beaulie said.

Gabby, now 15 and adopted from birth, was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome at 10 and, at 13, discovered she had a tumor on her hip.

She missed October through January of her eighth grade year to have the tumor removed and upon her return, was finding it difficult to reacclimate in social circles and even experienced chronic bullying after standing up for a fellow classmate.

“She was having a hard time getting caught up from being gone,” Beaulie said.

Her mother recalls her being upset the night before the incident and thought she was upstairs doing homework, but Gabby was searching on the Internet how to end her life. The next morning she took a box of Advil cold and sinus and went into the bathroom at school and consumed 18 pills.

Beaulie said her daughter became drowsy and went to the nurse, with whom she had a good relationship, and told her what she had done. Gabby was then taken to Golisano Children’s Hospital and Baker Acted shortly after.

Beaulie said after the incident Gabby began heading on the right track with therapy and medicine. A result of the polycystic ovary syndrome is a frequent fluctuation of hormones, creating highs and lows.

“The doctor worked closely with us to make sure we had the best help to regulate her hormones,” Beaulie said. “That has taken years to regulate. It’s been a long journey of trying to get everything right.”

This past October another tumor was found, this time in her neck. Gabby had surgery at Children’s Hospital in Boston in December where the rare benign tumor usually found in adults was removed.

“The physical part of the recovery is harder than the mental,” Beaulie said. “She has this vision that she’s a broken person because nobody can give her an answer on why the tumors are reoccurring. To be 15 years old and not know — it’s frustrating. There are days where she feels so overwhelmed and things are too much.”

Despite the good days and bad, Gabby wouldn’t let obstacles get in the way of her pursuits going forward, and she tried out for the cheerleading team and also takes advanced classes in high school.

“She said, ‘Mom, I refuse to be invisible anymore.'”

Beaulie is working with local health experts on creating “Gabby’s Rooms” in schools throughout the School District of Lee County to have telemedicine rooms put in school where students can have access to therapists, social workers, or other ancillary services.

“There is no reason we are not bridging the gap between the hospital and the school and providing these resources,” she said. “There are thousands of telemedicine psychologists available online at any minute. We’re both passionate about the fact this needs to be done.”

Founded in 2016 by Scott Spiezle and Susan Goldy, Kids’ Minds Matter is a unified movement in Southwest Florida dedicated to advancing pediatric mental and behavioral health services. By developing clinical pathways to screen and treat patients, enhancing public awareness through education, and lobbying for systemic change and sustainable funding, Kids’ Minds Matter aims to align mental health providers, local agencies, the judicial system, law enforcement, schools and faith-based organizations.

Virtual doors will open at 6:30 p.m. with a pre-show preview of programs and resources from area mental health agencies and community partners of Kids’ Minds Matter, Golisano Children’s Hospital and Lee Health. Featured during the event will be local high school students who will share their personal struggles with mental health issues and why they are advocating for enhanced mental health services.

To register for the event, visit www.KidsMindsMatter.com/Unmasking or call 239-214-0921.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj

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