It’s not only service providers and family members who are concerned about the struggling mental health system in Kansas. So are law enforcement officials.
Maybe their concerns about increased crime and jail costs will get the attention of lawmakers and the Brownback administration. Little else seems to.
Law enforcement is dealing with more mentally ill people who aren’t getting needed services and who land in the criminal justice system, the Kansas Health Institute News Service reported.
“Frankly, the social service component of what’s going on in the state’s mental health system is an embarrassment,” said Brad Schoen, director of the Riley County Police Department.
The problem is that funding for the community mental health centers hasn’t kept pace with the number of people needing services. As a result, many of these individuals are ending up in jail or prison. Experts say that 27 percent of those in Kansas prisons are seriously mentally ill, the Kansas City Star reported.
Providers and other stakeholders have voiced concerns about underfunded mental health services for some time.
Barb Andres, executive director of Episcopal Social Services and Venture House in Wichita, said the support system that used to help mentally ill people get by has “disintegrated.” She told KHI that the system is now “focused a lot more on crisis than it is on helping people maintain.”
Others are concerned about the Brownback administration including the mentally ill in its plan to turn Medicaid into a managed-care system.
National groups also are raising red flags. The National Alliance on Mental Illness gave Kansas an “F” grade for its mental health system. Its most recent report shows Kansas as among 10 other states that have made the deepest cuts to mental health spending.
A few lawmakers are starting to pay attention.
“I see us cutting services on the community level, and I see the state hospitals saying they’re full and can’t take any more patients,” said Rep. Bob Bethell, R-Alden. “So what’s happening is a lot of people are getting locked up for the sake of their own safety and for the safety of society at large. That’s not a good solution to the problem.”
Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, also has been outspoken about a dramatic drop last year in the number of children referred to psychiatric residential treatment facilities.
“We are headed for a tremendous crash in the ability of Kansas to help poor, seriously mentally and emotionally challenged youth,” Kelsey said at a legislative hearing in November.
The recent departure of Social and Rehabilitation Secretary Rob Siedlecki and improved revenue forecasts give the Brownback administration an opportunity to change direction and provide better support for the mentally ill. It needs to seize the opportunity.
As Bethell noted, “We’ve heard the governor say he’s not going to hurt the most vulnerable among us. But we’ve certainly done a number on mental health.”
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee