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All Bay District schools to have telehealth kiosks on Monday to help students with hurricane-related mental health issues

News Herald - 8/8/2019

Aug. 8--PANAMA CITY -- Every Bay District student will have access to mental health care through telehealth technology starting the first day of school next week, Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis announced on Thursday.

Standing in the main lobby of Bay High School, DeSantis announced that 63 telehealth kiosks would be installed and ready at every school in Bay and schools in five other Panhandle counties when the new school year starts on Monday. The announcement comes less than two months after DeSantis unveiled the plan to bring the technology to students to help them with any mental health needs they have following Hurricane Michael.

"When they come back on Monday and if they need help, they'll be able to receive it," DeSantis said of students. "This is something we're doing that we ultimately believe will save lives."

The telehealth technology, which DeSantis first announced in the county in June, will connect students and their parents or guardians with mental health providers. The kiosks have large touch screens and cameras and will connect students with providers through a method similar to FaceTime on an iPhone.

"We've found that kids are a little more comfortable talking into a phone," DeSantis said. "We hope this will create measurable, positive outcomes and think it's a starting point for people who need it."

Bill Husfelt, superintendent of Bay District Schools, said that the system expects there to be mental health needs, given the impact the Oct. 10 Category 5 hurricane has had on the community. Many parents and students are stressed, still living in RVs and damaged homes, Husfelt said.

"We know the challenges on families are piling up," Husfelt said. "We want to prepare and make sure we have as many options as possible."

The telehealth initiative comes at an opportune time as more mental health options are part of the national discussion following the recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio.

DeSantis said the telehealth program could soon expand beyond the Panhandle.

"If this yields the results we hope, this could be a model in all schools in the state," she said.

Kara Mulkusky, director of student services at Bay District Schools, said administrators had already set up a system for students to use the kiosks privately in rooms in every school.

Mulkusky said school administrators and counselors will meet regularly to discuss any students who are struggling and then refer them for telehealth care if it's deemed appropriate.

"We'll need parental involvement and parental consent, then we'll work on the schedule and make sure students have designated sessions during the week," she said.

Parents will also have the option to connect with the sessions through their smartphones if they desire.

The telehealth technology is one of several post-hurricane mental health initiatives announced for the Panhandle in recent months.

The Florida Department of Children and Families will receive an additional $2.3 million to expand outreach services with its Crisis Counseling Program. The U.S. Department of Education has awarded $1.25 million to the county to improve mental health care services. Also, the Florida Division of Emergency Management is set to hire a director of mental health response.

"They are looking for a health recovery manager now," DeSantis said.

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(c)2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

Visit The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.) at www.newsherald.com

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