How Kids’ Minds Matter is helping local children cope

Even before the current pandemic, the Southwest Florida region was dealing with an epidemic in children’s mental health.

Deborah and Paul Simeone at the KMM Secret Garden GalaAn estimated 46,000 Southwest Florida children are impacted by mental and behavioral health disorders, and COVID-19 has only intensified the problem. Recent studies have shown a significant increase in mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance abuse disorders due to the current pandemic, reports Paul Simeone, Lee Health’s vice president and medical director of behavioral health.

As a state, Florida is ranked a dismal 36th in the nation for per-capita spending for pediatric mental health services and has less than 50 percent of the providers relative to top performing states. The result is higher incidences of school violence, drug use and self-harm.

Nationally, suicide is the second leading cause of death in children and young adults, ages 10-24. According to Mental Health America, six out of ten young people who suffer mental illness don’t get the treatment they need.

That’s the bad news. But here’s the good: the Southwest Florida community is stepping up to help, big time. The fourth annual Kids’ Minds Matter Secret Garden Gala — held on March 4, 2020, before the COVID shutdowns — raised a record $2.8 million for pediatric mental and behavioral health initiatives.

Secret Garden Gala 2018 at ShangriLa Springs

Kids’ Minds Matter (KMM) works with Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida and Lee Health to raise awareness and funds for life-changing children’s mental health programs and services. Since its founding in 2016, the KMM movement has raised about $10 million, demonstrating the Southwest Florida community is strongly aligned with Lee Health in this shared mission.

These funds have had a tremendous impact. Golisano Children’s Hospital reports a 1,000-percent increase in outpatient visits from 2017 to 2019, and Lee Health has added 25 new pediatric mental health care providers. Community outreach efforts include suicide prevention classes for every freshman at Florida Southwestern State College, a partnership with the counseling department at Florida Gulf Coast University, mental health navigators at Lee and Collier County schools, and Mental Health First Aid training for teachers, counselors and first responders.

Susan Goldy and Scott Spiezle at the first Secret Garden Gala in 2017

In response to the anxiety-inducing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kids’ Minds Matter launched Mental Health Mondays, a virtual series on Facebook designed to provide parents with advice, resources and activities to benefit their children’s mental wellbeing during this time.

Continued community support is vital to achieving KMM’s goal of a 50 percent decrease in voluntary and involuntary pediatric psychiatric hospitalizations in Southwest Florida.

“The importance of monies raised at this year’s Secret Gala is that they support all of the various initiatives and services provided by Kids’ Minds Matter,” says Simeone, who was recruited by KMM and Lee Health in 2018 to lead the strategic vision for mental and behavioral healthcare in Southwest Florida. “Without such financial supports, critical services could not be provided, and planning for additional resources could not be seriously undertaken.

“You have to remember that Florida is last in the country in per-capita spending for behavioral health services, and Lee County is last in all of Florida for the same. So, it’s simple. Without philanthropic support, we simply couldn’t do what we must.”

By Autumn Gates