An epidemic is spreading in Florida.

At its worst, mental illness asserts itself in paranoia and delusions that can explode into violence, which happened last month when a lawyer shot three people at Florida State University before police killed him.

But more commonly, it resides in the private and personal anguish of those who struggle daily with a mind at war with itself.

It does not discriminate.

Clockwise from top, right: Surviving suicide gave Altamonte Springs resident Joe Mendoza a second chance; Jonathan Carson began high school in Orlando bright, talented and full of promise. He left four years later disconnected and disabled. His father talks about a life with schizophrenia; people like Orlando police officer Manny Varela must balance compassion with the need to protect themselves and others when dealing with desperately mentally ill; Orange County Jail Corrections officer Greg Dawkins works at the largest mental health institution in five Central Florida counties: the Orange County Jail; Sierra Denniston seemed to have everything: talent, brains, ambition and a lot of people who believed in her. Then, at 14, the Orlando teen developed signs of bipolar disorder. Photos by Ricardo Ramirez-Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel; Carson photo courtesy Carson family.
It’s Sierra Denniston, a teenager battling bipolar disorder. It’s Joe Mendoza, a middle-age man who, suffering from depression, tried to kill himself. It’s A.C. and Jo Ann Carson, who lost their son after two decades of schizophrenia.

It’s the police officers who serve as the first responders in our mental-health system. It’s corrections officers who deal with mentally ill inmates every day. It’s neighbors struggling with a mentally ill homeowner.

We never notice how wide and deep mental illness has spread until it reaches a state of crisis in our communities. From the state’s highest court to the front lines of emergency care and treatment, there’s an urgent call for change in how we treat the growing numbers of people with mental-health problems.

“About 70 percent of the people who need mental-health treatment in this state can’t get it,” says Donna Wyche, manager of mental-health and homeless issues for Orange County. “Either the resources aren’t available or, sometimes, people can’t figure out how to navigate the system to find the resources. We have to do a better job.”

In Florida, some 660,000 adults and 181,000 children live with serious mental illness — bipolar disorder, severe depression or schizophrenia — and nearly half the population will struggle with less devastating forms at some point in their lives. An insidious epidemic, it reaches into every class of neighborhood and touches every public agency.

Yet Florida ranks 49th among the states for mental-health programs, spending $37.28 per person last year. Mississippi spent four times as much on its mentally ill.

Per Capita Spending On Mental Health

Florida spent $37.28 per person on mental-health-resources in 2012 — the second lowest of any state. Maine spent the most — $338.24 — per person.
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Source: National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute

Altogether, Florida devotes $718 million a year to mental-health programs, but it pours nearly $1 billion a year into jails and prison for housing and medicating mentally ill inmates.

Other costs of untreated mental illness — to homeless shelters, emergency rooms, police officers, court systems, employers, communities, families and individuals — have become prohibitive.

The human cost is incalculable.

When James Earl Jones killed his girlfriend, her brother and mother with a baseball bat in Tavares in July, he left behind two grieving families: his victims’ relatives, and his own parents. Jones, a schizophrenic who was off his medications, was later found dead in a nearby lake.

When Myron May went on a shooting rampage at FSU, he not only wounded three people — one of them a promising young student from Apopka who’s paralyzed from the waist down — he left behind a wide circle of friends trying to understand what went wrong.

Such high-profile attacks are drawing attention to the crisis, the roots of which began more than half a century ago.

That’s when a national movement began to close mental hospitals that inhumanely warehoused patients — a movement that was supposed to be followed by the establishment of community-based treatment programs. People with mental illness were supposed to receive counseling, medication, case-management and sometimes shelter while living with or near their families.

But the funding to fully support those community programs never materialized.

Some states have tried belatedly to develop those programs, but in Florida the effort is still in its infancy.

As a result, the number of mental-health calls to law-enforcement agencies in Central Florida has increased 30 percent during the past five years. Entire wings of the Orange County Jail have become treatment centers. The waiting list to see a doctor at the primary mental-health care provider in Orange County is four to six weeks. Frontline care centers, designed to treat those in crisis, are overrun.

No one with any knowledge of the crisis suggests there is a panacea — or that money alone will solve a complex problem that has been building for decades. But there’s little debate on one point: It’s time for solutions.