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Kids’ Minds Matter educates SWFL community of mental health crisis during ‘Unmasking the Epidemic’ event

Unmasking the Epidemic, a free virtual event by Kids’ Minds Matter, educated the Southwest Florida community of the alarming pediatric mental health crisis faced by children and families today, while also providing the resources currently available in the region for those seeking help. The event, which featured personal stories from parents and child advocates, testimonials from local health care leaders, and strategic plans for improving access to care in the region, inspired significant donations to expand pediatric mental health programs. As a result of the event, inspired individuals continue to make gifts, and Lee Health anticipates the event’s impact will exceed $1 million.

Since its founding in 2016 at Lee Health and Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, Kids’ Minds Matter has been dedicated to increasing awareness of the need for expanded pediatric mental and behavioral health care in the five-county region of Florida including Lee, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Charlotte counties, and has raised more than $10 million to support its mission to increase access to care to ensure children receive the right care at the right place and right time.

“The generosity and interest of our community during Unmasking the Epidemic shows that real change is possible,” said Chris Simoneau, chief foundation and development officer at Lee Health. “We are so grateful for this outpouring of support that will allow us to continue to grow our behavioral health services and dedicate ourselves to improving access to mental health care that is vital for our region’s families.”

Kids’ Minds Matter founders Scott Spiezle and Susan Goldy made appearances during the event. Calls for donations and advocacy were made by auctioneer Rick Gallo, and seven advocates were on hand to answer phone calls with donations or questions. Compelling videos about their struggles were presented from Kole Yates, who was bullied in middle school; Damini Parkhi, who struggled with self-harm and was Baker Acted four times; Cynthia Kummer, a mother who saw her children’s mental health declining during the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic and moved across the country to get them into in-person schools; and Ellie Belcastro, who became a mental health advocate after seeing her peers struggle.

Advocates and mental health professionals from Lee Health also presented information about the mental health crisis along with Kids’ Minds Matter collaborators from the School District of Lee County, SalusCare Florida, and David Lawrence Centers for Behavioral Health. A full list of participating organizations and their services is available at KidsMindsMatter.com/Resources.

“We as a society have a responsibility to become more educated, to break the stigmas, and to effect real change,” said Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health. “Over the past year, with the isolation imposed upon our children due to the global pandemic, this partnership on services is needed now more than ever.”

The keynote speaker, Brad Hunstable, founder of Hayden’s Corner, told the heartbreaking story of his son’s tragic suicide in April 2020 four days before his 13th birthday. Hunstable is now an advocate for suicide education and fostering conversations with children to build resilience. Hunstable encouraged parents to talk to their children about whether they have thought about hurting themselves and how to handle those feelings, noting that resilience can be taught and practiced. He shared a story about a father who talked to his daughter about suicide after hearing Hunstable speak. A month later, the father told Hunstable that his daughter had still tried to kill herself, but after taking pills came and told her father what she had done. She received treatment and survived, which the father attributed to the earlier conversation.

“My son’s a hero,” Hunstable said, wiping away tears. “His life matters, too.”

Kids’ Minds Matter is dedicated to fostering partnerships that support existing services, identifying and filling gaps in the continuum of care, and innovating new treatments to meet the pediatric mental and behavioral health care needs in Southwest Florida. The goal of Kids’ Minds Matter, Golisano Children’s Hospital and Lee Health is to expand availability of mental health programs and services for area youth and their families. An estimated 46,000 Southwest Florida children are impacted by mental and behavioral health disorders including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, psychosis, substance abuse, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, all conditions that have been exacerbated by the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic. In 2017, Golisano Children’s Hospital had more than 6,900 pediatric mental health visits. In 2020, those visits surpassed 16,000. However, the need continues to grow.

Dr. Paul Simeone, VP and medical director of behavioral health at Lee Health, outlined what is next for addressing the crisis, emphasizing continued need for community philanthropic support to implement a five-year plan that includes:

  • Improving access to care with more providers, developing an intensive outpatient program for high-risk youth and autism testing and adding more Mental Health Navigators in schools.
  • Building capacity in the region by partnering with Florida Gulf Coast University and Florida State University to develop the mental health workforce.
  • Expanding community engagement and partnership by sponsoring regional events, programs and educations.

Support for the event included presenting sponsors Dr. Rick & Ellie Klein of Bonita Springs. Additional sponsors included Audi Fort Myers and Audi Naples, LeeSar, FineMark National Bank & Trust, Stock Development, Susan Goldy & Scott Spiezle, George and Jill Hamilton, Gillian Draper, and Jill Kushner.

To learn more about Kids’ Minds Matter, get resources for help, donate or become an advocate, visit KidsMindsMatter.com.


About Kids’ Minds Matter

Founded in 2016, Kids’ Minds Matter is a unified movement in Southwest Florida dedicated to advancing pediatric mental and behavioral health services. By developing clinical pathways to screen and treat patients, enhancing public awareness through education, and lobbying for systemic change and sustainable funding, Kids’ Minds Matter aims to align mental health providers, local agencies, the judicial system, law enforcement, schools and faith-based organizations. Kids’ Minds Matter is managed through the Lee Health Foundation. Please visit KidsMindsMatter.com or call 239-214-0921 for more information.

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