Mental health experts help out SWFL schoolchildren, their families

Over the last year, a group called “mental health navigators” has helped some of the children most in need in our schools, reaching them before they’re in crisis.

One of the navigators, Jeannine Sparkes, met the Fahey family three months ago. Now, she may as well be part of the family.

“I call her almost every day and she just lifts me up,” said Barbara Fahey.

“Barbara’s family came to me because Nevaeha [Barbara’s daughter] was acting out at home and at school,” Sparkes said.

Nevaeha’s teacher reached out to Kids’ Minds Matter, a nonprofit focused on children’s mental and behavioral health in Southwest Florida. One of their programs designates certain people to connect children and their families to resources like doctors’ appointments and therapy.

“We connected them with psychiatry, got her on medication,” Sparkes said.

Sparkes is one of five mental health navigators who work with students in Lee and Collier schools. Richard Keelan runs the program.

“A navigator’s actually going to help the family set that appointment up, go with the family to the appointment, help them understand and process what happened during the appointment,” Keelan said.

The schools flag the students and connect them to the navigators, if the parents agree to work with them. The navigators operate on what’s called a “wraparound approach” that includes coordinating intensive care for children and having flexible funds to use at their discretion, like gas money for families. The navigators must also have experience, so they all know firsthand the challenges of mental health.

“I have lost two siblings to mental illness,” Sparkes said. “And my own father was bipolar.”

“It’s somebody who gets it,” Keelan said. “If you don’t know what it’s like to have your child burn down your house, it’s a little different. Both my kids did that at some point.

Keelan believes in this program because it’s how he met his two adopted children 20 years ago. The numbers show you have to intervene early: The median age of onset for anxiety is 11, so half are younger than that, and 50% of all mental illness starts by age 14.

“I taught 11-year-olds, and I had three students that were hospitalized through the Baker Act in one semester,” Sparkes said.

After that semester, Sparkes retired from her 20 years at Lee Schools and applied to be a navigator.

“Maybe I could help kids before they get to the point where they have to be hospitalized,” Sparkes said.

All of that was before the pandemic, which has been devastating for children’s mental health. Sparkes does feel like they have been having an impact.

“We see improvement pretty much across the board with the families we’re working with,” Sparkes said.

The navigators want to see improvement in a child’s school attendance, coursework and behavior. So far, Nevaeha has seen a 15% increase in grades in one quarter and a 55% increase in school attendance. Sparkes says the ultimate reward is to see children like Nevaeha thriving.

Dramatically changing lives

In just a year, the navigators have worked with 68 families, and there’s currently a waiting list. Before the pandemic, 46,000 children were in need of mental health services, and that number has only grown since.

Naveah and her 2-year-old brother Kingston are, in many ways, typical children. Except both have special needs you can’t see: Naveah has ADHD and Kingston is autistic.

Naveah started acting out three months ago, Barbara Fahey didn’t know what to do.

“I was going through depression,” Fahey said. “I felt overwhelmed.”

That’s when Sparkes came in.

“We kind of blow in, the school district makes the referral, the parents agree to the program and we stay as long as we’re needed, just as long as we’re needed, just like Mary Poppins,” Sparkes said. “Naveah is very bright, she’s in an advance class, none of it made any sense.”

Sparkes went to work, and got Naveah on the right medications and back in therapy. While she started with Naveah, she also began helping Kingston, who wasn’t talking and showed some red flags. After an appointment was set up with a neurologist, he was diagnosed with autism, and is now getting the early intervention treatment he needs.

The navigators’ approach means the whole family must have support, and that model has worked for the Faheys. Barbara Fahey feels she’s in a much better place.

“Mentally, physically, emotionally, everything,” Fahey said. “I don’t think I would have done it without her coming in and lifting me back up.”

These two ladies know the work is far from over. But as each day passes, Naveah’s behavior improves, and a single mother doesn’t feel like she’s alone.

If you are struggling or if you know a loved one who is in trouble, there is help and you are not alone. There is free and immediate support available 24/7.

Below is a list of important resources:

In An Emergency

If you or a loved one is in immediate danger calling 911 and talking with police may be necessary. It is important to notify the operator that it is a psychiatric emergency and ask for an officer trained in crisis intervention or trained to assist people experiencing a psychiatric emergency.

In A Crisis

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 800-273-TALK (8255)

If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline connects you with a crisis center in the Lifeline network closest to your location. Your call will be answered by a trained crisis worker who will listen empathetically and without judgment. The crisis worker will work to ensure that you feel safe and help identify options and information about mental health services in your area. Your call is confidential and free.

Crisis Text Line – Text NAMI to 741-741

Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.

National Domestic Violence Hotline – Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)

Trained expert advocates are available 24/7 to provide confidential support to anyone experiencing domestic violence or seeking resources and information. Help is available in Spanish and other languages.

National Sexual Assault Hotline – Call 800-656-HOPE (4673)

Connect with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area that offers access to a range of free services. Crisis chat support is available at Online Hotline. Free help, 24/7.

The CDC recommends everyone familiarize themselves with the warning signs of suicide, which may include:


  • A person thinking about or threatening suicide or seeking a way to kill themselves
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Feelings of purposelessness, anxiety, being trapped, or hopeless
  • Withdrawing from people and activities
  • Expressing unusual anger, recklessness, or mood changes

To access more tools, you can visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s website.

This resource list is courtesy of the NAMI support page.

If you want to learn more about suicide prevention and awareness or other mental health conditions, Lee Health offers the following resources:

The Lee Health Behavioral Health Center offers assistance and support. To speak with a team member for an appointment for you or a loved on please call 239-343-9180.

Reporter:Lindsey Sablan
Writer:Joey Pellegrino
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