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Florida taps first-ever mental health coordinator for hurricanes, disaster recovery

Miami Herald - 10/16/2019

Oct. 16--TALLAHASSEE -- The state Division of Emergency Management is hiring Darcy Abbott, a longtime Florida health official, as its first mental health coordinator for recovery efforts after hurricanes and other disasters, touting it as the first statewide position of its kind in emergency management in the country.

Abbott, most recently an administrator at the state Agency for Health Care Administration and state Department of Health, was offered the job last week, said state emergency management director Jared Moskowitz. A start date has not yet been announced.

Abbott's job, which reports to Moskowitz, will involve addressing mental health needs in communities after natural disasters like hurricanes and coordinating mental health services across several of the state's agencies that deal with behavioral health. It will also include developing a recovery mental health and crisis counseling outreach program for communities most affected by disasters.

The creation of the new position was announced in June as part of a broader mental health effort being touted by First Lady Casey DeSantis, in response to Hurricane Michael's devastation in the Panhandle last year. Local officials said after the storm that the region needed significantly more help to treat an uptick in mental health issues, particularly among children.

In Bay County local leaders had said the ballooning crisis had prompted hundreds of schoolchildren to be referred for further mental health care, though the region faces a shortage of providers. In some extreme cases, they reported, students as young as six had been examined involuntarily under the Baker Act and others had attempted suicide on campus.

Abbott, 62, a licensed clinical social worker, has had some past experience with hurricanes: In 1972, Abbott and her family were affected by Hurricane Agnes, which caused flooding in much of the northeastern United States. She received a bachelor's degree in social work from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and a master's degree in social work from Marywood University in Scranton, Penn., before moving to Florida to work for the now-defunct Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services in 1989 and 1990.

She then spent eight years working for the University of South Florida as a consultant to the Department of Health, where she helped public health responders and victims of Hurricane Andrew, before joining the Department of Children and Families' Office of Family Safety.

But most of her time in state government has been spent at AHCA, where she spent a decade in its Medicaid behavioral health services program and rose to become the state's Medicaid administrator in charge of long-term care and behavioral health care.

In 2013, Abbott moved to the state Department of Health as its bureau chief for chronic disease prevention, before returning to AHCA in 2015 to run its Clinical Compliance Monitoring Unit, which evaluates the quality of care in the state's Medicaid managed care program, according to the agency's website.

DEM spokesman Jason Mahon said the new emergency management position, which was opened twice, drew 48 applicants before Abbott was selected.

One of Abbott's first tasks will be coordinating the existing mental health recovery effort in the Panhandle, where officials say needs remain acute.

The state sent counselors and temporary housing to the region earlier this summer, and has installed telehealth portals in every public school in five affected counties -- Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf and Liberty counties --to connect children to mental health services.

This story will be updated.

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