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New Mental Health Crisis Strategy To Launch In Kansas City

Alex Smith

Every day, police in the Kansas City metro area are inundated with calls to handle mental illness emergencies.

"Usually more than one time a day,” says Don Ash, sheriff of Wyandotte County, Kan.  “Calls could come in from a family member. Calls could come in from the general public. From a business owner.”

Someone might be picked up for something as simple as loitering or trespassing, and even though it might clearly a mental health emergency, police typically have little choice but to take them to jail or possibly an emergency room.

But a new facility in the works in Kansas City, Kan., raises hope that local police will soon a better option.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced Jan. 23 that a former state psychiatric hospital near the University Of Kansas Hospital, which has been mostly mothballed during the past few years, is being converted into a mental crisis stabilization facility.

A Department of Justice report shows that nearly two-thirds of jail inmates in have some kind of mental health problem. Some have committed real crimes, but many have not.

Ash believes taking these people to jail is not a great way to deal with a crisis, and it taps police resources.

“They’re not available to be doing what the public truly expects them to be doing, and that is really dealing with suppressing crime or investigating crime," Ash said.

“It is our hope that this is gonna be one of the most helpful and significant changes in the mental health system and its delivery in this state over the past, even couple of decades,” Brownback said when he announced the facility in Kansas City, Kan.

The Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, Kan., has been all but empty since being cited for safety violations and staffing concerns in 2011. It will reopen April 1 as the first of the new 24/7 crisis stabilization centers in Kansas. Patients might stay a few hours or a few weeks. The new facility will have 10 longer-stay beds, compare to 50 beds in the previous Rainbow incarnation.

Many involved in mental health agree the new facility could make a big difference, but see it just one step forward after years of falling behind on supporting mental illness.

"There's been a steady erosion over the past seven, eight years on both sides of the state line,"  Susan Crain Lewis, President and CEO of Mental Health America of the Heartland, says of mental illness funding in the state.

"It’s not been a question of ‘let’s get something more’ it’s like ‘how can we hold on to the bare minimum?’”

State grants were created in the early 1990s to fund community mental health centers in Kansas. That funding was cut in 2008-09 and has fluctuated since then. The state attributes recent cuts to lower Medicaid caseloads.

Missouri has also seen significant cuts for safety net services: about $17 million since 2010.

Lewis says those cuts have meant the uninsured and underinsured can’t get the help they need.

“The minute you can’t go to your doctor for any amount of time, you get sicker,” says Lewis.

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR
The Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, Kan. has been mostly closed since 2011.

Many advocates trace a new interest in funding mental health to the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., when a 20-year-old man who may have had a mental illness killed 26 people.

“You always hate that it takes something like that for us to start paying attention to thing we know we need to be doing, but it did - I think - change the concentration on this issues,” says Brent McGinty, President and CEO of the Missouri Coalition of Community Mental Health Centers.

McGinty says that in the last year, the Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and legislature have done a lot more for mental health, with programs like the “Strengthening Mental Health” initiative.

About a month after the Sandy Hook shooting, Gov. Brownback announced plans for a new Kansas mental health strategy. He said he would channel $10 million into a regional mental health hub system.

Brownback's new mental health strategy includes the rehabilitation of the Rainbow Mental Health Facility, and Sheriff Ash says it will make a difference.

“I believe we will start to see a reduction in some of these people that we see, or that we see on a regular basis,” Ash explains.

Susan Crain Lewis is optimistic, but cautious.

“It’s a huge help, but it doesn’t solve all of the problems,” Lewis says.

Even though the crisis center will fill an important gap, Lewis believes grant money still needs to be restored for community mental health centers. She says those funds are needed to help continue keeping people well after the work of the crisis center has ended.

“The connection’s essential, but how long can that connection hold?” Lewis asks. “And how much can the community mental health center bear with no more revenue for the ongoing needs of those people?”

The crisis invention approach may be spreading, however. Advocates are currently seeking funding for a crisis facility on the Missouri side of the state line.

Eds note: This version adds clarity to the statement mental health funding levels in Kansas.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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