Family shares experience of mental health system

A potential tragedy became a story of how things can work

0 | Advocacy, Mental Health

— It was a situation that could have produced another tragic headline about a mentally ill person who slipped through the cracks.

Instead it became a success story.

Three weeks ago, Jace Bemis’s friends knew something wasn’t right. He wasn’t his happy-go-lucky self. He seemed sad, depressed.

A couple of his classmates shared their concerns with Deerfield High School Principal Nathan Reed and with the school counselor, Tammie Sabata.

Sabata asked Bemis, 15, if he was alright. Bemis said he’d been thinking about killing himself in front of his friends at school. Deerfield High has 73 students. The town is about 20 miles west of Garden City.

An hour later, he was headed for the emergency room at St. Catherine Hospital in nearby Garden City, where he was evaluated by an Area Mental Health Center worker.

Bemis spent the next two and a half weeks at the Wheatland Psychiatric Hospital in Hays. It was his first encounter with the mental health system.

Bemis, who’d been diagnosed with ‘major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety,’ went home Jan. 25.

Support from fellow students

The community welcomed his return.

“I was really surprised by the support t that I found at the school - with the students, especially,” Bemis said. “The thing I was fearful of was coming back and everyone labeling me and making me out to be a bad guy when I was just going through a tough time.”

Sabata and Reed had made sure that didn’t happen.

“We care about Jace,” Reed said. “We sort of established with the staff and with the students that Jace is part of our school family, and we’re going to look out for him. And we’re taking this very seriously.”

Reed also met with parents assuring them of their children’s safety.

Jace and his parents, James and Melodee Bemis – he’s a maintenance worker at the hospital in Lakin, she works in the business office of the local nursing home – have agreed to talk publicly about their experiences in hopes of helping other families.

Sharing the story

They shared their story via speakerphone Tuesday with members of the Governor’s Mental Health Planning Council.

“We pushed very hard to have everything together before Jace was released,” Melodee Burgess said. “My concern was that he would come home and end up falling through the cracks. But that didn’t happen, and I want other parents to know that that doesn’t have to happen.”

“I just want people to know that it’s OK to get help when you’ve got a problem,” James Bemis said. “We’re all going to have problems at one time or another and depression can be one of those problems.”

Shortly after Jace was admitted to Wheatland Psychiatric Hospital, his parents were encouraged to call Keys for Networking, a Topeka-based program that counsels families with mentally ill children.

Working together

“I’ve been doing advocacy work for 20 years now, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” said Keys for Networking Executive Director Jane Adams. “This is exactly how the system is supposed to work - the family, the school system, the mental health center, the hospital…all working together.

“It just shows us that this can be done,” she said.

In Kansas, most parents seeking mental health care for their children are not as fortunate as the Bemises, Adams said. “So many times, there are huge delays in getting programs to even offer services,” she said. “A lot of families would have to wait for a month to get the services that Jace got.”

Adams attributed Bemises’ success to their pressing the system to provide the services Jace needed, mental health workers making sure the services were made available, and the school system’s willingness to get involved.

“I think this is indicative of what we can do when we all work together,” said Wes Cole, chair of the mental health planning council.

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