Be Free Lake finds new ways to reach the public with mental health services during the pandemic.
Photos provided by Delrita Meisner, Director of Be Free Lake.
The coronavirus has blown up the plans of Corbin Helton, a senior at Lake Minneola High School. He missed out on two big school trips: a music festival in Atlanta with his choir and a state competition in Tampa with his acting troupe.
But Corbin hasn’t had time for self-pity. In 2019, he learned how to recognize the symptoms of anxiety and depression through a training program provided by Be Free Lake, a drug prevention and mental health awareness coalition that provides free resources to residents of Lake and Sumter counties.
Now, he’s putting that training to good use. Corbin utilizes social media to send his classmates encouraging messages, such as “Stay strong and keep up hope” and “It will get better.” To him, it’s the least he can do during such a challenging time.
“My classmates receive these messages and appreciate that others are thinking about them,” Corbin says. “That makes me happy to know I can help them because being trapped inside and having no face-to-face interaction with their friends have been devastating for my peers.”
Indeed, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc well beyond the physical symptoms of nasal congestion, sore throat and fever. As unemployment numbers skyrocket, some people worry that the collateral damage from an economic collapse may cause more harm than the coronavirus itself.
“Mental health, depression, anxiety, violence, abuse and neglect—they’re actually on the rise because families are homebound and worried about finances,” says Delrita Meisner, director of Be Free Lake.
Be Free Lake, headquartered in Mount Dora, provides mental health and substance abuse services through collaborative efforts with various agencies, including the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Lake County Schools, LifeStream Behavioral Center, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Families, and city managers.
The organization’s two full-time employees and two part-time contractors visit Lake County schools to conduct outreach programs such as mental health educational sessions and know-the-law curriculum.
However, with the closure of public schools and the quarantine of people inside their homes, Delrita was forced to find new ways to communicate and address the mental health concerns of citizens during the pandemic.
“We’ve become very creative,” she says. “The moment we started learning about the potential closures, we immediately started working on some virtual platforms to reach families.”
She uses Facebook and Instagram to direct people to online resources, including the Lake County Community Resource Guide and the Lake and Sumter County Behavioral Health Resource Guide. The guides provide information about food, housing, job placement and counseling services. Comparing the last four months of 2019 to the first four months of 2020, the number of people accessing both guides has increased by 223 percent.
In addition, Delrita has created a series of social media ads targeting both teenagers and adults. One such ad, titled “No One’s House,” educates families about the dangers of underage drinking. It received 22,236 views during February and March. Overall, the number of teens viewing Be Free Lake’s social media ads increased by 197 percent from January to March, while the number of adults accessing the ads increased by 173 percent during the same time period.
“These campaigns send messages to help educate the public in hopes of breaking the stigma associated with mental health conditions,” Delrita says. “These ads consist of positive messages that help families and youth understand it is OK to feel periods of sadness and depression.”
Students like Corbin also have been a valuable asset to the organization. Through funding from the Community Foundation of South Lake and the Women’s Giving Alliance, Be Free Lake provided a teen mental health awareness training program to 142 teenagers at South Lake, Lake Minneola and East Ridge high schools before the coronavirus outbreak. Now, those students are sending uplifting messages to their peers via text messaging, email, short videos and weekly check-ins.
One student is Tyler Fields, a junior who plays on the Lake Minneola High School football team. He uses Snapchat to post pictures of himself running and lifting weights in his parents’ garage.
“They tell me my pictures encourage them to stay active and not lay around in bed all day,” Tyler says. “If any of my classmates contact me and feel depressed, I know how to direct them to proper resources so they can seek help.”
As families stay inside their homes, Delrita urges everyone to be observant of family members and look for possible signs of mental health issues: withdrawing from family activities, increased use of drugs and alcohol, lashing out in anger or too much or too little sleep.
“These are tough times,” she says. “It’s good to reassure your loved ones that they’re not alone during this struggle and they have a solid support system in place.”
It’s also possible that the pandemic could trigger anyone already dealing with suicidal thoughts. Delrita recommends that people openly talk about suicide rather than avoid the conversation.
“There’s a myth that if you feel someone is suicidal, you shouldn’t confront them about feeling suicidal thoughts,” she says. “In reality, though, they want someone to ask because it’s a doorway for them to open up and talk about what they’re feeling. Have those encouraging types of conversations.”
In addition to mental health, Be Free Lake is addressing concerns about a possible spike in substance abuse. The organization is offering Deterra drug deactivation bags, which allow patients to safely dispose of unwanted or expired prescription drugs and keep them out of the hands of family members for whom they were not prescribed. Patients simply add water to the bag and shake it up to neutralize the drug’s active ingredients. The bags normally cost $8, but grant funding allows Be Free Lake to offer them for free.
Forming strong partnerships with various community agencies has been the backbone of Be Free Lake’s success, Delrita says. When the organization was founded in 2005, Lake County ranked sixth among 67 Florida counties for the highest rates of underage drinking. Through years of educational efforts and outreach, the county now ranks 60th.
“Having an organization like Be Free Lake is a tremendous asset to our kids,” says Randy Reynolds, chief probation officer for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Circuit 5. “The resources that Be Free Lake provides for kids struggling with addiction and mental health issues are second to none. Without them, I don’t know how we would handle things on the prevention side.”
Be Free Lake, located at 1050 Boyd Drive in Mount Dora, can be reached by calling 352.383.2099 or by visiting safeclimatecoalition.org.