Like many others, I am finally seeing a light at the end of our exhausting, collective COVID-19 tunnel. While this is a welcome feeling of relief, I’ve come to realize that it’s important to recognize that this sense of hope is a blessing not equally allotted to everyone in our community.

Many families—especially those hovering around the poverty line—are still feeling the full weight of the financial and emotional fallout of the pandemic. Some continue to suffer from ongoing mental health struggles, while others face new challenges to their emotional well-being with each “new normal” that rolls our way. And, many times, those who struggle the most are our children.

Fortunately, May is National Mental Health Month, a time to break the social stigmas that still surrounds mental health care. This is a time to help those in need find the accessible support that’s right for them.

Too often kids, teens and parents struggling to cope with anxiety, depression, grief, or a host of other mental health challenges don’t know where to turn or how to find help. My fear is that, as a result, we have children and families in our own community who may have given up hope.

The numbers alone illustrate the glaring need for our community to know that mental health support is here, available, and easy to access. Pre-COVID, a staggering twenty percent of Florida children lived with untreated mental health challenges. That number has likely risen dramatically over the past year.

In our community, this is a crisis. If children cannot receive the help and the treatment that they desperately need, then the consequences – both physical and mental – can be devastating. Compounding this, Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are both designated Mental Health Provider Shortage Areas – creating an even greater barrier for children locally to gain access to care. In fact, just two years ago, the Florida Department of Health declared mental health a top priority for our two-county area based on a community-wide needs assessment.

And then a global pandemic turned our world upside-down.

Families were isolated from their support systems, parents were laid off, and kids separated from the familiarity of their routines, teachers and friends – across the board mental health declined further and help felt farther away.

As a mental health counselor myself, I saw firsthand the impact that stress and anxiety had on our community. Thankfully, Children’s Home Society of Florida (CHS), a national leader in trauma-informed care including counseling, recognized the warning signs of crisis and immediately rolled up their sleeves and got to work. One year ago this month, CHS launched their Family Support Warm Line providing free, 24/7 access to a trauma-informed mental health counselor with the touch of a button.

Since launching the CHS Family Support Warm Line, more than 5,000 kids, teens and adults have called or texted 1-888-733-6303 to find a nonjudgmental, listening ear on the other end. In addition to providing free access to a counselor day or night, CHS’ Ashley Offerdahl Counseling team continues to meet with families safely through in-school and online counseling with telehealth – each month serving 400+ kids and their families.

And, just weeks ago, CHS deployed their trauma-informed counselors to serve the children and families affected by the tragic shooting at the Oakwood Terrace apartment complex, making sure that those in need of support had it right away.

Now, more than ever, people need to know they are not alone – that they have a community surrounding them that believes in their ability to succeed and find happiness. If you know someone who is struggling, please refer them to CHS for support. We are still in this together.