Health & Fitness

New coalition seeks streamlined approach to Wichita’s mental health, drug abuse issues

As drug-addicted and mentally ill inmates pack the jail, and law enforcement deals with more people in crisis, local leaders are looking for a new way to tackle substance abuse and mental health problems in Wichita.

Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter, District Attorney Marc Bennett and others in government, business and nonprofits met for a summit at Wichita State University on Thursday. They announced formation of a new coalition aimed at figuring out how to best help those with substance abuse and mental health needs.

The Mental Health and Substance Abuse Coalition wants to devise a plan to bring together organizations already offering services in Wichita — perhaps ultimately in a single location — so people battling drug addiction, mental illness and the related problem of homelessness can receive a more streamlined approach to treatment. The coalition also hopes to use resources more efficiently.

“Two and a half years ago, the Sheriff’s Office, members of the police department, Comcare, Via Christi and SACK (the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas) all sat down in a room and pointed fingers at each other about how broken the system was and how it was somebody’s else’s fault,” Easter said.

“Needless to say, we all came together, really discussed the issues in earnest and how we could solve some of our own problems,” he said, while faced with an “overcrowded, overloaded system” stressed by years of increasing need and declining state dollars.

Downtown Wichita’s Community Crisis Center — a collaboration between Comcare, the county’s mental health provider, and the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas, a nonprofit focusing on prevention, treatment and case management — has already proved successful. So far it is saving about $12 million a year and giving patients who might otherwise bounce between different programs a “one-stop shop” for their treatment needs, SACK executive director Harold Casey said during a news conference.

“That success really ... gave us the confidence to say, OK, if we can expand this on a larger scale, we could really make an impact here,” Bennett said.

WSU and public relations firm Bothner Bradley have partnered with the coalition to devise a five- to 10-year strategic plan to meet its goals. Currently, the coalition has two committees — one focusing on mental health and the other on substance abuse — as well as a 12-member executive board that includes Bennett, Easter, Casey, Wichita police Chief Gordon Ramsay, Wichita public schools Director of Safety Services Terri Moses and others.

The coalition is considering seeking nonprofit status and eventually plans to ask for the public’s input, Easter said.

During the summit, he repeated what he has long said: With more than 400 inmates treated in Sedgwick County Jail’s 49-bed mental health pod last year and another 450 inmates suspected of being mentally ill, the adult detention facility is the “de facto mental health facility” in town.

But the jail is also filled with people who have chemical dependencies: Around 1,000 of all inmates, about 73%, have some sort of substance abuse issue, he said.

Most inmates have problems with both.

About 62% are expected to land back in jail within two years. Part of the hope is that a more integrated treatment approach might keep some out of jail.

“We have got to figure out a way to get these folks back on their feet and back being productive,” Easter said.

On the police side, data shows calls for mental health services have spiked over the past 10 years. Since 2009, the number of crisis calls has increased by 69%, taxing resources and creating risks for officers and those needing help, according to a recent city council agenda item.

Last month, Wichita officers shot and killed two men thought to be experiencing mental health issues in just five days.

In-patient treatment options in Wichita are also a concern. Ascension Via Christi has 111 beds for mentally ill patients, Comcare executive director Joan Tammany said. There are three residential substance abuse programs, two for women and one for men, and just 13 beds for people who need to detox — but no youth drug treatment beds.

“While we have some state mental health beds in Osawatomie, it’s hard to get people up there, and then when they come home they’re not connected to their community or effectively reintegrating with their families,” Tammany said, adding that those factors have prompted “a strong commitment on our part to continue to look at solutions.”

“We know that we’re going to have to solve these problems locally and we’re going to have to solve them creatively,” she said.

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Amy Renee Leiker has been reporting for The Wichita Eagle since 2010. She covers crime, courts and breaking news and updates the newspaper’s online databases. You can reach her at 316-268-6644. She’s an avid reader and mom of three in her non-work time.