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In Kansas, An Underfunded Mental Health System Relies On Police For Help

Police are often first responders to mental health calls in Kansas.
Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service
Police are often first responders to mental health calls in Kansas.

Mental health providers say law enforcement can be an essential and unavoidable part of the system, when it comes to keeping workers safe and even coming across people who are in need of help.

LAWRENCE, Kansas — Activists and citizens from Dodge City to the Kansas City suburbs are reconsidering the involvement of police in their communities — including whether officers should continue to help respond to mental health crises.

What that response looks like is drastically different depending on population density. But Kansas mental health workers say officers play an essential and unavoidable part of an underfunded system. Police are often responsible for keeping mental health workers safe on calls, bringing in people who are experiencing a crisis or finding them when responding to reports of domestic violence or other disturbances.

“We have a very close relationship with law enforcement in all three counties (we serve),” said Keith Rickard, executive director of the Guidance Center, a community mental health center in northeast Kansas with locations in Leavenworth, Atchison and Oskaloosa.

For mental health providers, a crisis is defined as anything needing immediate attention. Caring for people going through those experiences involves getting them to calm down, making sure they’re safe, figuring out what’s wrong and connecting them with long-term care — whether that’s hospitalization, therapy or addiction treatment.

The crises themselves look different, too: It could be a person going off of psychiatric medication and having delusions and hallucinations, someone threatening to hurt herself or other people, and someone getting so sick he can’t take care of himself properly.

The Guidance Center employs only a few people who specialize in crisis response. And it’s easy for them to burn out, Rickard said, especially with the state’s shortage of social workers, therapists and other mental health providers.

“Crisis work is trauma-inducing,” he said. “Right now, we just kind of work them day in and day out. And it’s very unfortunate.”

Who provides help

For many people going through a mental health crisis in Kansas, their first interaction for help will be a police officer, EMT or emergency room nurse.

But seeing a mental health provider first can make a big difference, reducing the rate of future suicide attempts, hospitalizations and incarcerations, according to Andy Brown, the behavioral health commissioner for the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services.

“The difference of having a qualified mental health professional arriving at your house when you’re in a crisis versus having a law enforcement officer or an EMT is pretty significant,” he said.

But smaller, more rural Kansas communities have few resources for people who are going through a crisis, Brown said. His agency helps provide mental health services throughout the state, which has 26 community mental health centers for Kansas’ 105 counties.

Most centers are privately operated nonprofits funded by a combination of grants and local, county and state tax dollars. A few are operated by local governments.

Many of the smaller centers contract with a private company to provide a 24-hour crisis hotline, and callers might receive a check-up from police if they seem like they’re in imminent danger.

Some cities, like Hays, Manhattan and Kansas City, Kansas, have crisis stabilization centers dedicated solely to serving people who need immediate mental health care. These centers are safe places for people to get treatment without taking up an emergency room bed, Brown said, and also reduce interactions with police.

Like other mental health services, not every person in Kansas has access to a crisis stabilization center. One possible solution, Brown said, is to create a statewide mobile response team that travels to patients directly. The caveat: The state doesn’t have enough funding to make that a reality, he said.

“About half the state of Kansas is still either considered rural or frontier,” Brown said. “There is a logistical issue just around the geographical distance.”

Police training

Mental health training for police in Kansas also varies. Some don’t get extensive training, while others invest in a program called Crisis Intervention Training, which lasts several hours.

Sgt. Jason Hinkle with the Lenexa Police Department said it’s a type of “mental health first aid,” focusing on de-escalating tense situations, communication skills and quick decision-making.

Officers work closely with the Johnson County Mental Health Center, said Hinkle, who is also chairman of the Kansas Law Enforcement Crisis Intervention Team Council.

“To lower their emotion and raise their rational thinking, that is our Number One goal,” he said of people who are going through a mental health crisis. “I absolutely am convinced that it's made for safer outcomes.”

More than half of the officers in the Lenexa Police Department have been trained in crisis intervention, he said. But the amount of trained officers in any given department can vary.

Many towns don’t have the resources to pay for the training, and KDADS has trained about 75 officers in rural communities in the past year.

While some activists pushing for police reform have suggested that officers no longer respond to mental health calls, Hinkle believes it’s unrealistic. The majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent, he said, but officers are necessary to keep mental health providers safe in case someone behaves violently or there are weapons in a house.

“The Number One issue, before you can even get a clinician involved in a crisis call, is making sure the scene is safe,” he said. “It needs to be controlled before somebody gets hurt... When we’re going to these things, that’s why there can be violence.”

Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. You can email her at nomin (at) kcur (dot) org and follow her on Twitter @NominUJ.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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