ORLANDO, Fla. – As the country faces a national mental health crisis, therapists and child life specialists in Central Florida have advice for parents.
“Number one thing, keep your eyes open,” said Angela Rojas-Watson, a mental health therapist at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
Rojas-Watson started working at the hospital 22 years ago and said in the last year she has seen a rise in young people taken into custody via the Baker Act.
“Parents get here and they’re in shock, sometimes they don’t understand, sometimes they had no idea their child was dealing with a situation that was difficult, to the point that they attempted to harm themselves,” Rojas-Watson said.
According to a poll of parents by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 44% reported concerns about their children’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, but only 16% looked for help for their kids.
Rojas-Watson said her job is to talk to parents about what they perceive happened that caused their child to reach a crisis point. She also has discussions about follow-up care and specific information about the actual diagnosis and treatment for pediatric patients.
“A mental health diagnosis is as any medical diagnosis, you need to identify it to treat it, you need to feel comfortable talking about it and finding the right approach,” Rojas-Watson said.
Maria Mandese is a certified child life specialist at Arnold Palmer Hospital. Her job is to work with a team, including the parents to determine the best activities and strategies to keep the patients comfortable during their hospital stay.
“How can we help them cope positively through their hospitalization and safely?” Mandese said.
According to the hospital, between May 2021 and March 2022, Arnold Palmer saw 278 Baker Act cases.
An overwhelming number of patients were girls, 202 female compared to 76 male patients during that time.
The data also showed 224 patients were between the ages of 14-18.
Rojas-Watson said some young women she has worked with have shown reluctance about asking other people for help, for fear of being judged. Instead, she said, some turn to social media for help.
“They tend to seek help through peers and social media and many times those particular sources of information are not necessarily accurate or helpful to them,” Rojas-Watson said.
Mandese said patients who are under a Baker Act are not allowed to have technology or phones at bedside, which offers a break from social media.
“I would encourage parents to don’t see it in a negative way, don’t focus on the stigma, talk about it openly,” Rojas-Watson said.
If you or someone you love needs mental health help, there are a number of programs available, often at no cost or low-cost.
The Mental Health Association of Central Florida has programs and services in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Lake, Brevard and Volusia counties. To see their programs, go to the MHACF website.
LSF Health Systems supports mental health services in 23 counties, including Flagler, Lake, Marion, Sumter and Volusia counties. To find a program, go to the LSF Health Systems website.