The building at 103 East Moody Boulevard has known many incarnations. It was a law library. It became the Bunnell Branch Library in 2004. Sally’s Safe Haven, a then-much needed location for supervised visitations of children by parents under court restrictions, opened in 2014 with a big ribbon-cutting of its own.
The library has since moved to a much smaller location at Marvin’s Garden, and Sally’s Safe Haven was quietly closed in September, its operations shifted, two days a week, to the public library in Palm Coast. That made room for a new use there and today’s ribbon cutting for the 4,900-square foot Flagler Access Center, a mostly government funded behavioral health center operated by SMA Healthcare that will focus on adults’ mental health and drug addiction, and where individuals may walk in and seek help. They may not necessarily get the help they’ll need immediately. But they’ll be directed to available resources. And for Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies, they’ll bring their Baker Acts–which can number three to five per shift, according to the sheriff–tom this new location, as opposed to one on Justice Lane.
“It’s our hope in the Sheriff’s Office that with this facility and the partnership between state, local government and private partners, that the number of Baker Acts can be reduced, people can get the help that they need,” and suicide investigations reduced, Staly said.
“The goal of this partnership is to seek to eliminate some of the barriers to mental health access for citizens of Flagler County,” Ivan A. Cosimi, chief executive officer of SMA Healthcare, said, citing Flagler Health+ (the organization behind Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine) as another partner that’ll have a presence at the center. The county’s transportation department will be providing transport to individuals’ appointments at the center, free of charge. Cosimi said substance abuse disorders and mental health issues will be a focus.
“Our vision for the access center is to create an environment convenient, accessible, and devoid of stigma,” Cosimi said. “So I believe we’re going to achieve that vision. We view the center as the first place that people will go to ask questions, seek services and find the support they need, a place for someone who’s experiencing symptoms to get help, a place where someone who has questions can get them answered in a place where someone could come here and feel safe and trust that the team here cares cares about them, respects them, and has their best interest in mind.”
John Eaton of Flagler Health+ pointed to a startling obstacle to mental health treatment: “There’s an 11-year gap from the identification of behavioral health to the first day of treatment,” he said. “So today we know the center is going to start a new journey to address that gap. But also, we know there are many factors that could go into this delay. One of them are social needs, unmet social needs.” CareConnect+, he said, seeks to support patients through those needs.
Cosimi and others cited county commissioners–all of whom were present–County Administrator Heidi Petito, former County Administrator Jerry Cameron and many others who participated in the development of the center. Petito was especially complimentary of Mike Dickson of the county’s general services, whose staff renovated the building into 12 offices, a reception area, a gathering room and an IT room at a cost of $180,000, money the county appropriated from its federal covid relief package.
There were a few references to Flagler’s state-leading suicide rate. But those references are now out of date. In 2017 Flagler County recorded 31 suicides, most in its history, and had the highest suicide rate in the state. If stigma often–and inadvisedly–attaches to suicide, it also attached to Flagler County’s reputation since. No matter what the numbers have shown since 2017, elected officials and others have in various forums often referred to Flagler’s suicide rate as leading the state. But 2017 now appears to be an outlier, even if the rate since has not been anything to be more comfortable with.
Based on the latest figures available, Flagler’s suicide rate, at 20.9 per 100,000, placed it 20th in the state in 2020. Union and Holmes counties were first and second, with rates exceeding 35 per 100,000, but both are very small counties that combined had 12 suicides. Putnam was third, with 22 suicides in 2020, or a rate of 31.6 per 100,000. Flagler County had 25 suicides in 2020. Flagler was 24th in the state in 2019, eighth in 2018 (when it had record gun deaths in the county). What is unquestionable, however, is that it is inaccurate anymore to refer to Flagler as having anywhere near a leading suicide rate in the state.
Cosimi said the Legislature appropriated $275,000 for the center for this year alone. Cosimi has to lobby legislators to ensure that funding continues. The $275,000 is in addition to other funds SMA is budgeting for the center, where six staffers will be located. Petito said the county still has $120,000 in federal aid dollars that could be spent on mental health services.
Sue Urban and Denise Calderwood, long-time advocates for more mental health services in the county, were in the audience, if nowhere near microphones. They’d often spoken about services such as those that will be provided by SMA’s center over the years, and in December, when the county announced the date of its ribbon-cutting, Urban had a wry reaction she disseminated on her various platforms. “This idea was presented on several occasions to both boards in the presence of SMA and their leaders and told it would not work and there were no funds available in City or County budgets for such ventures,” she wrote. “Glad to see that our idea have been fully funded and is now being supported by the very people that told us grassroots community members it could not be done. Happy for to people it will help. Not happy that it was stolen from the people who created it.”
Representatives of Flagler Beach and Bunnell were also there, but none from Palm Coast–only because the Palm Coast City Council was meeting in a lengthy workshop all morning. Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin sent word of his support that the county’s Lacy Martin read to the dozens of people assembled in the chill on the sidewalk in front of 103 East Moody Boulevard right before the ribbon-cutting. He also acknowledged the event at the end of the council meeting.
“We are proud to have that facility being a first step in addressing the mental health deficits that we suffer here throughout the county and with the city,” Alfin said. “I certainly want the county to know that we support their efforts in looking for solutions for mental health for the future.”