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Over 300 attend Jacksonville Mental Health in the Courts seminar

More than 300 legal and judicial professionals attended a recent mental health seminar at the Duval County Courthouse.  The day-long session, “Mental Health and Related Conditions Affecting Children and Adults in Court” was the brainchild of Circuit Judge Karen Cole.

In her opening remarks Cole emphasized the effort was all volunteer with no budget, “yet here we are” referring to the overwhelming turnout. Cole said the idea for the seminar came from her rotation through the various divisions of the court system and recognizing that regardless of the type of case, mental health issues are common.

Denise Marzullo, Executive Director of the MHA of Northeast Florida congratulates Circuit Judge Karen Cole for her work in mental health.

Cole, known as a mental health champion, received recognition for her efforts from Mental Health America (MHA) of Northeast Florida.  Denise Marzullo, Executive Director of the MHA praised Cole, “for her leadership, vision and guidance in improving the mental health of the Jacksonville community."

Dr. Michael De La Hunt, Chief of the Division of Psychology and Psychiatry at Nemours Children’s Clinic provided an overview of the various types of mental illnesses and their associated behaviors.  De La Hunt emphasized that tremendous strides have been made in brain science but also noted the complexities of properly diagnosing mental illness, unlike physical illnesses which can more typically be determined through a series of medical tests.

Mental illness knows no boundaries.  According to Ross McDonough, LCSW from New Day Counseling, national research shows attorneys commit suicide at 6 times the national average and suffer depression at 2 times the national average of the general population.

During an optional lunchtime session, McDonough, Psychotherapist Michael Zalewa and Florida Bar General Counsel Carlos Leon held an interactive discussion on signs and symptoms of the stresses of practicing law, where to access treatment and ways to intervene on behalf of a colleague who may be experiencing mental difficulties.

Stephen Bloomfield, Ed.D., a clinical psychologist who frequently works with the court provided insight into reasons parents and children may end up in the family court system.  He explained the impact parents with untreated mental disorders can have on their children that may in turn, put the children at risk of behavioral problems. 

Bloomfield spoke of children becoming “parentified” essentially becoming caretakers of their siblings, the home and even their parents when an illness remains untreated.  When parenting skills become impaired, abuse and neglect charges come into play and the courts become involved he explained.

Limited services available.  According to the MHA’s Marzullo, Duval County is the lowest funded Florida county for mental health treatment in the 49th lowest funded state in the U.S.  Marzullo presented some startling Duval statistics: currently more than 11,000 individuals with serious mental illnesses are receiving public assistance; 55,000 children have been diagnosed with some type of behavioral disorder and less than 50% of individuals with mental illness are receiving any form of treatment. 

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) currently spends $4 million annually to house offenders in mental health wards at the jail, not including costs for treatment or response calls and the JSO had more than 7,600 calls for service for mental illness last year.

Marzullo shared that while services through Medicaid and other state programs are often available for children, affordable services for adults are much more difficult to find. Few community resources exist in Duval for children who turn 18 and age out of their parent’s coverage, don’t have employer coverage or don’t work due to their illness.  Noting that because many severe illnesses such as schizophrenia manifest themselves between the ages of 18-24, it can be the worst time for an individual to be without access to affordable treatment.

Marzullo encouraged attendees to educate themselves and understand the community needs regarding mental health treatment. “Ask how can you assist and become involved.  If you think something is wrong, speak up and get help.”  She cited 211 Duval as a resource for services and encouraged the lawyers to help as much as possible, “all non-profit organizations need attorneys,” she smiled.