TAMPA, Florida — Anyone in Florida can be “Baker Acted,” but it’s become much more common for kids recently.
The decades-old state law says that someone threatening to harm themselves or others can be involuntarily or voluntarily committed to a mental health facility for 72 hours. Invoking the act has become so common in Florida that people use it as a verb — increasingly for teens: Between 2011 and 2016, the number of Baker Acted kids rose by nearly 50 percent, according to the most recent data available from the University of South Florida’s Baker Act Reporting Center.
Kids like 16-year-old Chris Ammann. He’s been flagged four times, once by a school administrator who identified him as at-risk, and spent a few stints at local children's crisis facilities, including Gracepoint Wellness in Tampa. Between stays, he’s been back in school.
“I'll just go to school, put on a mask, pretend like I'm happy and I'm OK so people don’t ask me what’s wrong,” Chris told VICE News. “It's hard to answer that question when everything is wrong. So I pretend that I'm happy and tell people I'm OK, but inside I'm not.”
The halls of Gracepoint Wellness are full of young people in crisis. At least 10 juveniles a day come through the center’s doors. The majority of children who come to Gracepoint have expressed thoughts of self-harm. Diagnoses range from depression and anxiety to mood and psychotic disorders. During their stay, they are evaluated by a psychiatrist who prescribes medication as well as group therapy and one-on-one counseling.
Trouble is, Chris and others like him feel like they need longer-term help.
While Baker Acting someone can be the quickest and most reliable way to access therapy and a child psychiatrist, the places that take those patients and other short-term crisis facilities in the U.S. represent how unattainable consistent mental health care is for the average American, because it costs too much or just isn’t readily available. And it's particularly hard in Florida: According to a 2018 report released by Mental Health America, the state ranks 44th in the country for access to mental health care. Waitlists for child psychiatrists, specifically, are notoriously long.
“There’s a huge shortage of child psychiatrists, there is a huge shortage of therapists, and that’s probably why we have so many Baker Acts,” child psychiatrist Dr. Kristie Jetter of Gracepoint Wellness said.
Baker Acts are more common during the school year, and it’s usually school staff who are the first to flag a troubled student, like in Chris’s case. But most mental health emergencies are ultimately handled by police officers dispatched by 911. Already this year, there have been more than 3,000 mental health calls to sheriff and police in Hillsborough County alone. More than 400 of those calls resulted in a juvenile Baker Acts.
“We should not even be a part of it. We’re not clinical professionals; we’re not doctors we can’t diagnose and fix what’s going on with the kids,” Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office deputy Stephanie Krager told VICE News.
The most recent data shows that between 2011-2016, 30 percent of kids in Florida who were Baker Acted will be Baker Acted more than once. According to mental health professionals, frequent Baker Acts can actually assist in getting higher-end services approved including a cost-free Community Action Team which provides intensive at-home counseling and mentorship for both families and children.
In a gripping special episode, VICE News Tonight on HBO correspondent Isobel Yeung follows the journey of three families struggling with their children’s mental illness through a 72-hour Baker Act at one of Florida's largest and oldest adolescent Baker Act facilities. Yeung investigates the complicated reality for counselors, families, law enforcement and school officials as they attempt to make difficult and timely decisions in order to access vital mental health care for children in distress.
This segment originally aired May 14, 2019 on VICE News Tonight on HBO. Jaclyn Skurie contributed reporting. Video segment edited by Anne Garrett.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.