Mental health admissions increase in Florida in wake of school shooting

Three nurses walking down a hospital corridor
The recent school shooting in Florida spotlights the need for more inpatient psychiatric treatment beds in the country, write two mental health advocates. (Image: Getty/VILevi)

Mental health centers in Florida report a spike in admissions of children following the Valentine’s Day school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

Nearly all 40 beds at Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital in Miami have been full since the shooting, Patricia Ares-Romero, chief medical officer, told the Miami Herald. Most of the patients are in middle school and have been admitted for anxiety, depression and fear, she said.

The nine children’s crisis units within the Central Florida Behavioral Health Net also reported more admissions, as have Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale Hospital, according to the article.

“Even when you have a dysfunctional family, when you do not have a good home life, there is one place where children always feel safe: in school,” Ares-Romero told the publication. “And now, that has been ripped away from them. This creates anxiety and fear, and they are coming into the hospital because they are not able to deal with that sense of uncertainty.”

The American Red Cross has sent a team of mental health experts to Florida to help local officials after the shooting, Newsday reports. In addition to providing initial emotional support, they also refer the most vulnerable people to more intensive services.

But the shooting spotlights the need for more inpatient psychiatric treatment beds in the country. From 1955 to 2016, the number of state psychiatric hospital beds in the United States decreased by nearly 97%, write John Snook, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC), a national nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to treatment for people with severe mental illness, and  E. Fuller Torrey, TAC’s founder, in a piece for National Review.

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Experts agree that additional mental healthcare facilities would benefit mental healthcare in the country, but it may not prevent actual mass shootings. The school shooters at Columbine High School in 1999 did show signs of depression and psychopathy, but would not have been candidates for long-term psychiatric stays with those symptoms. Perhaps, though, mental illness screenings and public awareness campaigns could help people receive help sooner.

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But physicians believe the country needs to focus on gun control rather than mental illness in the wake of the latest shooting. In an interview with the Associated Press last week, Louis Kraus, M.D., a forensic psychiatry chief at Rush University Medical College in Chicago, said that most gun violence is not attributed to mental illness. Indeed, the American Medical Association declared gun violence as a public health threat two years ago. And Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, said recently that he’d be open to allowing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research on gun violence.