Guest Commentary

Mental illness is having a devastating impact on our community

May is Mental Health Awareness month and is intended to bring awareness to a serious issue faced by many in our community. Due to policy decisions and decades of budget cuts for mental health resources at the state and federal level, mental health issues are now dealt with by local government entities. Individuals suffer without help, and as front-line service providers we see the devastating impact mental illness is having on our community.

Schools, police, jails, prosecutors, local emergency rooms and courts are increasingly the primary mental health providers in our communities. Schools provide special staff for youth with mental health issues, a significant portion of our police calls now have a mental health component, 35%-40% of the jail population has some form of mental illness and all of these numbers increase each year. Our mental health system is broken and the few providers that exist often rely on public donations and fundraisers to cover operating costs.

Why should you care about mental illness? According to Treatment Advocacy Center, people with mental illness are more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, homeless or unemployed. People living with mental illness are more likely to encounter the criminal justice system, resulting in a large number of arrests and incarcerations. The overall annual cost of incarcerating people with serious mental illness in state prisons in Kansas exceeds $100 million. The criminal justice system’s primary function is not and should not be mental health treatment.

An article in the Eagle reported a 45% increase in suicides since 1999. Last year Sedgwick County had over 100 suicides, far outpacing traffic deaths and homicides.

The number of students served by the state-funded mental health pilot grant in Wichita schools has increased by 60% since October 2018, to 566 students. Through school-based intervention that enhances access and reduces the stigma of mental illness, early results are promising: 38% of students have improved their school attendance, 40% have improved behavior, and 72% are on track to graduate. Families trust schools to do what’s best for their children, and collaborative work like this must continue in order to help students and their families overcome barriers presented by mental illness.

In Wichita, a group of leaders began meeting regularly several years ago to examine best practices, improve relationships among key stakeholders and stop the revolving door caused by mental illness and drug addiction. This group has formed a coalition/task force to address these issues in our community.

Our goal is to improve lives and protect the community in a more efficient and lasting way. We would like to see more community members participate in Mental Health First Aid for both adults and youth. In addition to that, the community needs to engage in more dialogue on Suicide Prevention Education.

If you would like to help in this important effort, call Comcare at 316-660-7500.

Marc Bennett is the Sedgwick County district attorney; Jeff Easter is the Sedgwick County sheriff; Gordon Ramsay is the Wichita police chief; and Alicia Thompson is the superintendent of the Wichita school district.