Two Democratic South Florida lawmakers are again trying to shore up the state’s shortage of mental health workers.
This week, Sen. Tina Polsky of Boca Raton and Rep. Hillary Cassel of Dania Beach refiled twin bills (SB 164, HB 147) that would create a scholarship and loan forgiveness program for future mental health professionals.
They carried similar measures during the 2023 Legislative Session as well. Both bills died without a hearing.
Florida ranks 43rd in mental health worker-to-patient ratio, according to the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery. The state ranked 49th last year for access to mental health care, according to Mental Health America, which estimated that 191,000 Florida youths experience at least one major depressive episode every year.
Seventeen percent of adults in Florida — about 3 million people — have a mental health illness, per the organization’s 2023 report. And suicides are on the rise. Last year, there were more than 49,449 suicides in the state — a 3% year-over-year increase, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021, suicides rose by 4%.
“We must address this critical shortage of mental health professionals which is even more acute because of increasing need across our state,” Polsky said in a statement. “We are in a crisis and we need this quick action to attract more students to the field.”
The legislation would establish a new program within the Florida Department of Health to attract “capable and promising students to mental health professions and encourage qualified personnel to seek employment in areas of this state suffering from critical shortages,” a press release from the two lawmakers said.
To be eligible, students must be enrolled in a graduate-level program in psychology, clinical social worker, marriage and family therapy, or mental health counseling. Recipients would be awarded scholarships for up to two years, in an amount up to $8,000 per year. The Department could award up to 5,000 scholarships yearly.
In exchange, recipients must agree to work 12 months in either mental health services in an area where a shortage of mental health professionals exists or as a faculty member in their field of study.
Cassel said in a statement that the proposed program received uniform support during a roundtable discussion on mental health she participated in alongside “numerous medical professionals” a few months ago.
“As someone who works every day to prioritize and improve my own mental health, I know firsthand how imperative it is for our state to address its shortage of mental health professionals,” she said. “By increasing the number of qualified professionals working in this field, Florida will better position itself to provide critical support to countless residents — and even save lives.”
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