Alex Penelas

While Alex Penelas sat on the County Commission, older brother Pedro with his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, even as Pedro became a danger to his family.

They went through 35 interventions as Pedro relapsed after treatment from when Penelas was 8 to before Pedro died a few years ago.

“We couldn’t invite Pedro to family events, his own nephew’s birthday parties,” Penelas said.

Pedro eventually died of leukemia at 64.

Penelas promised to use the Miami-Dade County mayoral bully pulpit to raise awareness about the seriousness of mental health if elected.

In the grand ballroom of Shula hotel during a luncheon of the Miami Lakes Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Penelas recounted the story of his older brother Pedro to express why he would advocate for awareness and de-stigmatization of mental health.

Pedro lived in a county home to the largest community of people with serious mental illnesses, according to a June 2016 report from the 11th Judicial Circuit, the state court in Miami-Dade.

The Criminal Mental Health Project’s Criminal Justice/Mental Health Statistics and Project Outcomes estimates about 9% of adults in the county “experience” serious mental illness. That rate was two to three times the national average but Florida ranked 49th in spending for community-based treatment.

There were 710 Baker Act initiations and 7,000 inpatient psychiatric days. Named after state Rep. Maxine Baker, from Miami who sponsored the act in 1972, the Baker Act is a Florida law that allows “families and loved ones to provide emergency mental health services and temporary detention for people who are impaired because of their mental illness, and who are unable to determine their needs for treatment. People who require the use of the Baker Act have often lost the power of self-control, and they are likely to inflict harm to themselves or others,” according to University of Florida Health.

Miami-Dade County jail was the largest institution in the state that housed people with mental illnesses, more than half of those in all state psychiatric hospitals. Penelas said that approach – of the criminal justice system treating mental health – is a part of the problem.

After sharing his family’s episode, Penelas said he supports a change in state law to increase the hours someone is held using the Baker Act law.

Penelas said he supports increasing the time of involuntarily assistance of mandatory psychiatric care.

“Seventy-two hours is ok for severe cases, not for initial cases,” Penelas said.

Penelas supports enforcing the reporting of mental illness data of people with severe mental illness and had to be detained. A 2013 law requires the names of Florida mental illness patients who are receiving treatment, voluntarily or involuntarily, to be submitted to the Florida Mental Competency database and the FBI's National Instance Criminal Background Check System.

A centralized database, like a doctor’s file of a patient’s health history, stores information so families of patients would not have to keep repeating their loved ones’ ailments, which Penelas said “would help tremendously with severe mental health cases.”

He said the database is “not for all” and “not so much on conditions” but for severe and frequent cases.

Penelas said he supports a severe threshold for the database but said he doesn’t have the capability to answer what would be on either side of the threshold. The database would not reside with the police department, he said of the idea he supports.

Penelas admitted he lacks the professional expertise, though he spoke about the topic from a family member’s perspective.

“I don’t have all the answers. I haven’t thought this through. I’m not there yet as for a policy,” Penelas said.

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