Sarasota's Mental Health Crisis Isn't Going Away, and Families Are Struggling to Stay Together
The traumatic shocks came one after the other for Blake Neathery. Growing up, many of the adults in her life were drug addicts. At 17, she had an abortion. At 22, she found her father’s body on the kitchen floor, dead from an overdose. Eventually, Neathery, too, found drugs, and they made her pain disappear.
They also sent her into a downward spiral of dependency. She fell into homelessness and prostitution and spent time in jail in both Sarasota and Manatee counties. She felt there was no way out of her full-blown dependency and her patterns of shame and hopelessness. Hours of counseling and therapy weren’t helping cure her addiction.
Then she met someone through Narcotics Anonymous who helped her turn her life around. The difference this time? She connected with a role model who had lived through addiction herself. For the first time, Neathery says, she saw a glimmer of the person she could become. Through motivational interviewing, a form of counseling in which patients are encouraged to talk themselves into making positive changes, she realized there could be a path out of her misery and she learned to discuss her feelings openly and not hide them.
“My soul was dead. The spirit within me was dead," says Neathery, now 33. "I did not want to live. I needed so badly to awaken that spirit to live my life. I needed to reprogram my brain." These days, Neathery says, "When I have anxiety, I pick up the phone and ask for help. I didn’t let the problems stay inside me—that’s how I recovered.”
Neathery has two daughters—Kyla, 4, and Ava, 1—and, since recovering, she has turned her experience into a role as a program coordinator at Parents for Parents, a subdivision of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The organization’s work comes amid a rise in children being removed from their homes because parents cannot care for their kids. Removals can occur when a parent declines to pick up a child after the child has been placed in a mental health treatment center through the Baker Act or when a parent declines to allow a child back into a home after the child has been arrested or incarcerated. Other parents lose their children because they can’t afford safe housing, or because they’re depressed or suicidal, says Nathan Scott, a child welfare policy coordinator for the Florida Department of Health. Sometimes, Scott says, judges can’t send children back home to their parents simply because it's not safe there.
In Sarasota and Manatee counties, child removal is a particularly pressing issue. Our region has the highest removal rate in Florida. While the statewide removal rate is 4.79 children per 100 investigations conducted by authorities, the removal rate in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties is 7.83, well above other regions.
The problem has been exacerbated by the rising cost of housing and inflation, which peaked last summer to its highest levels in 41 years. Scott says the pandemic added anxiety to many families struggling to get by, and the rise in removals has also coincided with the explosive popularity of smartphones and social media.
“We’re still seeing the youth mental health crisis,” says Scott, pointing out that most kids removed from their families because of the parents' “inability to cope” are teenagers between 15 and 17 who have often experienced trauma and might have been charged with crimes. The under-5 age group also has a particularly high removal rate.
“Teenagers can have a plan for how to leave home when their mom is smoking crack,” Scott says. “A baby can’t do that.”
One organization helping to mitigate the problem is CarePortal, which connects children and families in need with local churches that can help. For example, recently, parents struggling to pay their bills couldn’t afford a nebulizer for their child. An investigator through CarePortal got ahold of the case, and someone from a local church showed up with the nebulizer. Now the child has treatment the family couldn’t previously afford. For another family, transportation was a roadblock. A father of two couldn’t take his children to medical appointments, but a church raised money to buy him a car.
“There are tons of examples just like these,” Scott says. “It’s powerful when people get the help they need.”
But the need remains for parents too ashamed to ask for help, for women addicted to drugs while pregnant and for others who can’t get off opioids, prescription drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, and illegal drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.
For children of addicted parents, the toll can be profound. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has shown that children of addicted parents have an increased risk of conditions like anxiety and depression. Parents, meanwhile, often feel guilt and anguish over losing their children, which can be catastrophic for someone already contending with addiction.
Neathery, the mother of two, speaks to individuals, groups and students about her story and the perils of drugs. As a coordinator for Parents for Parents, she meets parents who have lost the ability to care for their children. She shares her story, offers individual coaching and points attendees to support services they may not know exist.
One of Neathery’s colleagues is Sonya Johnson, a 38-year-old Sarasota resident who struggled to break an addiction to intravenous methadone and heroin for nearly 20 years and has spent time in jail. In 2014, she was near a breaking point, so she sent her two boys—Nicolas, now 14, and Aiden, now 13—to live with her mother.
“I went further and further into a dark hole,” Johnson says. “I felt my kids would be better off without me. I felt I was a horrible mom who could not stop using drugs.”
One day in jail, she moved to a recovery unit that specializes in helping inmates dealing with addiction. She recalls shame and guilt “driving into [her] so deep” that she was forced to make a change and be a loving mother for her children. In addition to her recovery program, she also enrolled in parenting classes that challenged her to never again go down the path of addiction.
On April 8, 2020, Johnson reunited with her two boys through a court hearing held on Zoom, the culmination of hours of recovery sessions and therapy. “It was so surreal," she says. "I will never forget the day. It is deeply and personally rewarding to see a family reunited.”
Today, Johnson is a coordinator with Parents for Parents alongside Neathery. Their goal is to help other parents shift anger and resentment into acceptance and to educate and support parents who want to turn their lives around and get their children back.
The two help struggling parents get off drugs and into support groups and teach them not to bury their feelings and to build a strong and stable support system. Even still, the fear of relapse lingers.
“Always be kind. You never know what others are going through,” Johnson says. “Look beyond the drugs—that’s just a symptom of the problem. We’re coming for all the parents to help empower them.”