Mayor Demings speaking at a podium, with commissioners and staff behind him.

Mayor Demings: We Must Improve Mental and Behavioral Health Care

Public Health & Safety

The mental health and behavioral system of care have been overburdened for years, and recent research suggests the situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Orange County is no exception. With the isolation brought on by COVID-19, suicides and drug overdoses have been on the rise, and an estimated 40% of inmates at the Orange County jail have a diagnosed mental illness. In addition, many struggle with substance abuse. Jail is the last place these individuals should be housed. Instead, providing treatment in a therapeutic environment is more effective in reducing recidivism and the rate of incarceration.

As a community, we need to do better. The system is overwhelmed. Which is why in May of 2021, after our Mental Health and Homelessness Division presented us with a gaps analysis of our mental and behavioral health system, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners and I unanimously agreed for the Heart of Florida United Way to convene a group of thought leaders to begin the dialogue on improving the mental and behavioral health system of care in Orange County.

Cover page of the Orange County Mental and Behavioral Health System of Care Community Analysis

The culmination of that eight-month effort is a comprehensive report titled Orange County Mental and Behavioral Health System of Care Community Analysis. The purpose of the report was to conduct a cross-sectional analysis to determine the validity of the findings of the initial study completed by our Mental Health and Homelessness Division, identify remaining system gaps and develop recommendations for system improvement. Research shows a connection between mental health and homelessness, and without adequate mental health care and treatment, our homeless population will only increase.

The United Way headed a multi-pronged, inclusive approach that involved 200 regional stakeholders and qualitative and quantitative data collected from committee meetings, community focus groups, conversations with key stakeholders and surveys, as well as a review of academic literature, historical reports, and community reports.

Five committees — looking specifically at Continuum of Care; Advocacy; Business and Philanthropy; Criminal Justice; and Homelessness and Housing respectively — received stakeholder input on the allocation and adequacy of behavioral health services and programs and provided recommendations to increase and enhance service delivery. The committees also focused on funding needs and prioritization of funding.

On Tuesday, February 22,2022, we convened at an Orange County Board of County Commissioners meeting to review this comprehensive analysis and determine the next steps in improving our mental and behavioral health systems of care. The board unanimously approved to accept the report and its findings. This report and its recommendations are only the beginning of a committed process that includes short- and long-term strategic planning. Most importantly, we (local governments, businesses, nonprofits and other community stakeholders) must all partner in this endeavor and use everything at our disposal to fill a $49 million gap in mental health funding and fix a very broken system.

I invite our residents to read the report at

On Wednesday, March 9, 2022, the Heart of Florida United Way announced a $1 million commitment in response to the report.

A version of the commentary was posted to the Orlando Sentinel on Saturday, February 19, 2022.

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