Filling a Care Gap

BayCare Deepens Investment in Behavioral Health Care

woman sitting across the table with her physician

Headlines in 2021 told the story: Individuals across all demographics were experiencing mental health crises at escalating rates due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And in a region with too-few behavioral health providers, the impact was acute, underscoring the long-term, systemic need for more capacity.

So as BayCare’s approximately 1,300 Behavioral Health team members worked alongside medical and community partners to meet patients’ urgent needs, BayCare also deepened its commitment to the region’s long-term behavioral health.

In February, BayCare’s Board of Trustees announced investments to serve thousands more behavioral health patients annually in inpatient and outpatient settings. And in May, BayCare announced a commitment to provide graduate education to train more psychiatrists right here in Tampa Bay to address the ongoing shortage of providers.

Responding to Teens in Crisis

When a teen is having a behavioral health crisis, BayCare’s Mobile Response Teams get there quickly. Read one teen’s story and watch our video below.

“These are commitments you make because it’s the right thing to do for our community’s health,” said Rick Colón, BayCare Board of Trustees chairman. “We won’t solve this problem alone, but BayCare can lead by example and hope other providers will join us to address this vastly underserved need.”

Improving Access to Care

BayCare’s commitment to mental health is long-standing. The health system is the region’s largest provider of behavioral health services. Its services range from inpatient behavioral health hospital beds and individual therapy services to a variety of initiatives to serve specific populations such as veterans and schools and, in some cases, working alongside first responders.

Informing BayCare’s new investments in behavioral health services was a study that showed West Central Florida, including the Tampa Bay region, remains significantly underserved when it comes to behavioral health access, creating all kinds of downstream impacts for individuals, their families and the community at large.

A consultant’s report found West Central Florida residents have less access to behavioral health services than similar populations in Houston, Memphis and Orlando.

“You can’t have health without mental health,” said Tommy Inzina, BayCare president and CEO, who helped spearhead the formation in 2019 of Tampa Bay Thrives, a collaboration of employers, government and health care providers focused on behavioral health access. “As an organization dedicated to the health of all we serve, it’s important we lead on behavioral health services, too.”

In February 2021, BayCare’s Board of Trustees committed to adding 65 more behavioral health providers, a 22 percent increase, and 24 more behavioral health inpatient beds at its hospitals, a 6 percent increase, by mid-2022. By the end of 2021, 19 of those new providers already were hired.

The additions will provide behavioral health services to about 5,800 more outpatients and 1,000 more inpatients every year. However, the services will run at a deficit, as many behavioral health services are not likely to be reimbursed by insurance plans and other programs.

Help That’s Personal

The systemic, sustained investments come as BayCare’s Behavioral Health teams also remain nimble at responding to the community’s needs, from operating the region’s largest on-demand Employee Assistance Program to smaller initiatives designed to serve specific populations, such as the Veterans Intervention Program (VIP) for struggling veterans, Community Action Teams (CAT) that work in schools with at-risk teenagers, or Mobile Response Teams (MRT) in Pasco and Hernando counties that can be dispatched any time of day or night when they receive a call about a person having a mental health crisis.

While the systemic investments are important, the impact BayCare Behavioral Health teams are making is often best understood anecdotally, such as the teenage immigrant orphaned after a tragic event. After working with a CAT team, the teenager is doing well in school, has a part-time job, is planning for his future and now advocates on behalf of pediatric behavioral health services.

Or the VIP participant, a veteran, who told the Florida Legislature: “My transition into society was a complete disaster. … When I finally hit my bottom and had nowhere else to turn, BayCare was waiting with open arms. … BayCare gave me the tools to get my life back.”

Or the father who wrote Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to share his gratitude for BayCare’s MRT, which responded when his child was threatening suicide. He called the team members “angels” and credited them in the following weeks with getting his child’s life back on track.

“These stories are why we show up for work every day,” said Gail Ryder, vice president of Behavioral Health Services. “We are here to help.”

Responding in the Moment of Crisis

It was the second week of school. Everything was going fine. She didn’t have any big problems like she did last year, but something just snapped in 15-year-old Avery’s brain. She decided tomorrow would be “the day.” The day she would take her own life.

“I still don’t know exactly what triggered it, but I just didn’t want to be here anymore,” Avery recalled.

Before falling asleep that night, Avery sent text messages to her closest friends. “I wanted them to be able to look back and know that I loved them,” she said.

When she woke up, she got ready for school, just like every day, but before leaving her room, she grabbed a handful of Prozac pills. She recalled that it took a couple of tries to put them in her mouth and attempt to swallow them.

“Everyone’s scared of dying. It doesn’t matter how suicidal you are. You are still scared of dying,” she said.

When she finally put them in her mouth, she couldn’t swallow. She spit them out.  Avery came out of her room crying and confessed to her mother what had just happened.

Avery’s mother called her father, who quickly came to the house. Avery had been seeing a licensed counselor and a psychiatrist for about six months, so her parents frantically tried to reach each of them to no avail. Her mother didn’t want to call 911, but her parents were at a loss about how to help their daughter.

Finally, Avery’s father remembered talking with Janet Waye, program supervisor for BayCare Behavioral Health’s Pasco County Mobile Response Team (MRT), who had helped connect the family with mental health services several months earlier. He had stuck Waye’s card in his wallet and decided to give her a call. Waye and Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies responded quickly to Avery’s house.

That’s what BayCare Behavioral Health’s MRTs do. They respond immediately when they receive a call about an individual experiencing a mental health crisis.

Waye said, “We try to de-escalate the crisis, provide immediate coping strategies, develop a safety plan and connect the family to needed mental health services. Our goal, when possible, is to divert youth from Baker Acts.”

The Florida Baker Act allows for temporary detention and emergency mental health services for individuals suffering a mental health crisis. Since the MRT program began in Pasco and Hernando counties, the number of times youths have been “Baker Acted” has decreased substantially. For Avery, it wasn’t possible. She told Waye and the deputies she probably needed to be Baker Acted.

 “She was very insightful the day I met her,” Waye said of Avery.

Though Avery’s parents didn’t know they were calling the MRT, this scene often plays out multiple times a day in both Pasco and Hernando counties. BayCare’s MRT counselors partner with sheriff’s deputies to respond to these calls.

For Avery, that call and the help she has received since has changed everything. “As much as you think people don’t care, oh my God, they do. … I am so glad I didn’t die,” she said.

Seeking help was once difficult for Avery, but now she encourages everyone to ask for help.

“There is no shame in asking for help, especially when it comes to physical or mental health,” she advised. “People are there to help you – teachers, counselors, psychiatrists, parents. You can’t do it yourself. You need others.”

For more information about services offered through BayCare Behavioral Health, visit

a butterfly drawn on a persons forearm
Mobile Response Team counselors responding to teens in crisis may encourage them to draw a butterfly on their wrist with permanent markers, give it a meaningful name, and protect if from fading or harm.