Gov. Sam Brownback is wise to want to reassess mental health services after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy. But is he willing to increase funding, if needed, or will tax cuts remain his priority?
Though much is still unknown about the young man who killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the shooting has raised concerns about mental health care.
“One of the things I want to look at is whether or not we’re providing sufficient mental health services,” Brownback said.
The answer is obvious to mental health professionals in Kansas, as well as to families struggling with this issue: No, we’re not. And a key reason has been budget cuts.
Kansas made the sixth-highest level of cuts to mental health funding from 2009 to 2011, according to a study last year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. State grants to community mental health centers were cut by $19 million. And though those grants were increased this year, funding remains 24 percent lower than it was in the state’s 2000 budget, Associated Press reported.
The state’s mental health hospitals also have struggled to keep up with the needs.
“We are unable to provide a broad array of services that people need to have wrapped around them until they become a crisis situation,” Amy Campbell, coordinator of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition, told the Lawrence Journal-World.
Others are concerned that the tax cuts Brownback approved could result in more reductions in mental health services. An expected drop in tobacco-settlement money also threatens a program that serves families who have children with serious mental health issues.
Brownback’s spokeswoman pointed out that Medicaid spending on mental health services has increased significantly in recent years. Still, large gaps remain.
Brownback noted, for example, that many people with mental illnesses aren’t getting help and are ending up in jail or prison.
State Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, raised concerns last year about the closure of several psychiatric residential treatment facilities in Kansas.
“We are headed for a tremendous crash in the ability of Kansas to help poor, seriously mentally and emotionally challenged youth,” Kelsey warned.
Other mental health advocates have warned that Kansas isn’t immune to tragedies like the shooting in Newtown.
“I don’t like saying this,” Richard Cagan, executive director of NAMI Kansas, told the Kansas Health Institute News Service, “but we’re just lucky this didn’t happen in Kansas.”
Kansas can’t keep counting on luck. It needs to provide mental health services and support to those who need them. And that should be a higher priority than tax cuts.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee