The Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, passed in March 2018, helped create Mobile Response Team units to deal specifically with emergency mental health issues in Florida.

FORT WALTON BEACH — The Florida Senate didn’t wait long to take legislative action following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.


Less than one month after a former student killed 17 students and injured 17 more on Feb. 14, 2018, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was passed, allocating some $400 million to preventing another tragedy.


The Stoneman Douglas Act’s headline-grabbing components were related to gun control – it raised the minimum age in Florida for buying rifles to 21, banned bump stocks, created waiting periods and background checks for buying guns and barred people arrested under certain laws specific to violence and mental health issues from buying guns.


What didn’t grab headlines at the time but plays just as crucial a role in the bill’s public safety endeavors was the creation of Mobile Response Teams for individual counties – groups of mental health professionals dedicated to responding to people in crisis, in homes or in schools or in workplaces.


Since Nov. 2018, Lakeview Center has placed Mobile Response Team (MRT) units in Okaloosa, Walton, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties – all with the ability to be somewhere and respond to a crisis within one hour of notification and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


“After what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, there was really a closer look given to providing resources everywhere it might be needed when it came to mental health,” said Carolyn Shearman, Lakeview’s Director of Emergency Services for MRT in all four counties. “And with the public safety act, luckily we were able to create teams in our area. All four counties are up and running and it’s a big area, but we have great staff so that makes it easier. It also makes it easier for me to get to know people in the different areas.”


The MRT doesn’t just have one function, either. The different units also do training, along with outreach and education in their communities.


“We wished, for a lot of years, to have something like a Mobile Response Team in our counties,” said Tasa Isaak, the Director of Care Coordination Programs for Lakeview and a key figure in securing the funding from the initial senate bill. “There’s a level of excitement that comes with being able to provide additional resources, and especially for kids. If we see a trend where more of them are going to inpatient care and there’s a question if they really need that, because it’s traumatic, then maybe in some cases we can take a closer look and make a plan for care that keeps them closer to home.”


In that vein, one of the most impactful things the MRT does in Okaloosa County is deal with children who may have, in the past, perhaps been put under the Baker Act too quickly. It’s a law which allows for temporary detention of an individual because of mental health issues.


If a child is put under the Baker Act in Okaloosa County, they’re admitted to Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, but because of the lack of a pediatric unit in the county they have to be moved to Pensacola for the actual care portion of their stay.


And if the pediatric units in Pensacola are full, the child is sent to Tallahassee. Then Orlando. Then Jacksonville.


It seemingly piles unnecessary trauma on top of an already traumatic, life-changing situation.


“We don’t want to ever just go straight into a Baker Act, because it is very traumatizing for children and their families,” said Autumn McAllister, a certified mental health counselor and team leader for MRT in Okaloosa and Walton counties. “Once we determine everyone is safe and there’s not an imminent risk, we want to look at what is more of a long-term, wraparound solution to help the individual and the family. We want to keep them where their lives aren’t being disrupted if at all possible.”


Another benefit of the MRT is that, in some cases, law enforcement or educators have been unfairly burdened with making judgments on mental health that they aren’t qualified to make and look at care options as one of two things – hospital or jail.


“The hope is that people who might not have been willing to receive mental health care can see it in a way they’ve never seen it before,” Shearman said. “That’s why outreach is such a big component of this.”


The grants for MRT units go year-to-year and are approved through June 2020 – and it’s not hard to see the need for them moving forward. Simply look at the fallout from the tragedy that created the MRT in the first place.


Shortly after the first anniversary of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, two survivors committed suicide – one former student and one current student. Their deaths underlined the need for long-term care for trauma victims.


“I think perhaps the biggest thing for me, is injecting some hope into situations where it doesn’t exist,” McAllister said. “I think that’s such an important thing. To be able to show them there are options and hope where they didn’t think either existed. We can get people the help they need, and make sure it’s the right kind of help.”


Mobile Response Team 24-Hour Hotline: 1-866-517-7766