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New law boosts Florida mental health focus for students and families

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Starting in July, Florida students and families will receive more information on the mental health services they are entitled to.

Rep. Christine Hunschofsky, D-Parkland, served as the mayor of Parkland during the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, where 17 students were killed. She said her time as mayor influenced her decision to sponsor House Bill 899.

"If a student is receiving behavioral health services in the school, the school is then required to let their family and/or caregivers know about the services that are available to the family and caregivers, both at the school and in the community," Hunschofsky outlined.

The measure was signed into law last week. Florida and the rest of the nation continue to observe National Mental Health Month during May, as they have for seventy years.

This year, the observation comes as schools and families grapple with the COVID lockdowns and the threat of mass shootings. Hunschofsky argued more needs to be done to provide mental health services to all Floridians, as well as a change of attitude toward mental health.

"We've seen the toll the pandemic and just life has taken on the mental health of so many," Hunschofsky noted. "It's always interesting to me that people separate mental health from physical health. And they're incredibly interconnected."

Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare employer and individual, said southern states often have much less access to mental health services.

"In New England, those states have a tendency to have very high numbers of licensed mental health care professionals per capita, and in the Southeast, we see lower," Randall pointed out. "In fact, in some states, that can be a sevenfold difference."

Last year, the Florida legislature created a Commission on Mental Health and Substance Abuse to examine how the Sunshine State provides mental health and substance abuse services. It expects to make recommendations to lawmakers.

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