Mental Health facility in Collier County overrun with influx of patients

Published: February 6, 2019 8:41 AM EST
Updated: February 7, 2019 2:47 PM EST

It is a startling statistic: Suicide has become the second-leading cause of death for children, teens, and young adults. Meanwhile, the number of children being hospitalized under Florida’s Baker Act continues to rise.

The law allows doctors, judges, and law enforcement to commit a person for psychiatric evaluation, if they are considered a threat to themselves or others.

We got a first-hand look at the effects the overflow is having at Collier County’s David Lawrence Center— and what help is on the way.

MORE: Mental Health court helps break the cycle of ill patients in and out of jail

“This is clearly a major, national, and local epidemic,” said Scott Burgess, CEO of David Lawrence Center.

As Collier County’s only Baker Act-receiving facility, young people are brought there whether or not there are beds available. Out of 30 beds, only eight are for children.

“We’re regularly running situations on a day-to-day basis where we’ve got 12, 13, 14 children that are needing to be on our unit,” said Burgess. The center has to bring in cots to make room for the overflow.

MOREMental health resources in Southwest Florida

Lindsey and Lindy Thomas have a personal understanding of what the families go through when their kids are mentally ill.

Their son, who is now in his 40s, battled the illness at a young age and was in and out of the hospital several times.

“Many times we stayed in the hospital or facility for weeks, months going through different trials and different medications,” said Lindsey Thomas.

Doctors were finally able to find a medication that worked for their son, but the couple say it was a long road to get to that point.

“It’s literally heartbreaking as you watch them struggle and try to maintain their life and what’s going on and deal with family,” said Lindy Thomas.

Unfortunately the number of children needing help continues to grow, and the David Lawrence Center reports a 32.5% increase in psychiatric admissions of children and teens in 2018, compared to the previous year.

Psychiatrist Edwin Gomez sees the issues at the facility first hand, as he is the one who evaluates the children when they are Baker-Acted. Though it is challenging to pinpoint a specific reason for the increase, he says it could partly be because of greater awareness overall, and especially social media.

As more celebrities openly share struggles with anxiety and depression, it appears more young people are making a public call for help. “Children are expressing themselves more with social media, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat…we get a lot of those admissions with patients saying they’re depressed and are thinking of ending it all,” Dr. Gomez said. “Luckily they have friends and family that care for them, and as soon as they see the message they call police.”

Once they arrive at the Center though, Dr. Gomez says the limited space presents a struggle.

The most recent annual report also shows up to 40% of Baker-Acted patients at David Lawrence Center had to be moved to other counties.

“A lot of time when we’re packed to the maximum, we have to consult with other facilities to see if they will take our patients,” said Dr. Gomez. “The challenge we get into, parents get upset and I can’t blame them for getting upset for having their child be transferred from here to let’s say Punta Gorda or even Tampa because there’s not a bed available between here and Tampa.”

Good news is, there are plans for a $25-million dollar expansion, which will be funded by the one-cent sales tax Collier voters passed last November. Even so, Burgess says that funding is just for the building, and much more will be needed to get it up and running.

Meantime, the David Lawrence Center plans to turn to private donors for a $400,000 expansion of its children’s unit to add six more beds by August.

As for Lindy and Lindsey Thomas, they encourage struggling families to join family support at a local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness. That support is what helped them carry on in the most challenging of times.

“During this process there are lots of spirals up and spirals down. Hope and heartbreak, and then happiness and disappointment,” Lindy Thomas said.

“Don’t give up,” adds Lindsey Thomas. “You’ve got to keep looking. There is hope.”