Since the horrific attack last month in Connecticut, I have given considerable thought to the cause of that sad event. While some are calling out for more gun control, I have been thinking about the issue of treatment of our mentally ill population.
When I was appointed as a Sedgwick County District Court judge in 1976, my first assignment was to the Probate Department of our court. I was responsible for conducting mental commitment hearings for individuals who were mentally ill and dangerous to themselves or others.
Each morning I would leave my house and go to St. Joseph Hospital and conduct hearings in the psychiatric unit. I would leave St. Joseph and go to Wesley Hospital, then to E.B. Allen County Hospital, and finally to St. Francis Hospital. All of those hospitals had psychiatric lockup units.
The patient was represented by court-appointed attorneys, and the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office provided an attorney to present the evidence to determine if the patient met the standards for commitment. Typically, the family and a psychiatrist would be present and testify of the need for treatment.
If it was determined that a patient met the criteria, I could commit him or her for treatment to one of three state hospitals – Topeka, Osawatomie or Larned. The treatment would last one month or longer, depending on the need of the patient.
Because of cuts at both the federal and state levels, we no longer have this system. The state closed Topeka State Hospital, and the remaining hospitals are overpopulated. The local hospitals have eliminated most of their beds for psychiatric patients.
One private hospital now evaluates and treats the mentally ill, but that treatment typically lasts for a very short time, usually days. Many of the homeless and individuals committing crimes in Wichita are actually suffering untreated mental illness. Sedgwick County leaders are considering creating a special jail pod to house those individuals.
It seems that we need to reinstate more comprehensive and humane programs to treat the mentally ill, such as we once had. The U.S. Congress and the Kansas Legislature should prioritize and address this issue expeditiously, so that events like the Connecticut tragedy can be reduced or eliminated.
JAMES G. BEASLEY