May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, which aims to bring attention to mental health and honor those living with mental health conditions, as well as the professionals who care for them. Mental health is important to everyone, regardless of age, gender, race or socioeconomic status.
What is Mental Health?
Mental health encompasses various aspects of our overall well-being, including emotions, psychology and social interactions. Our mental health profoundly affects how we think, feel and ultimately act – influencing our ability to handle stress, maintain relationships and make choices. While genetic factors play a role, environmental influences and personal experiences also significantly affect our mental health. In the United States, approximately one-in-five adults is affected by a mental health condition.
Mental health conditions are diagnosed on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe. Discussions around generalized anxiety, which is a common mental health condition, may differ from discussions concerning those with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
To shift perceptions, the working groups of the Special Committee on Kansas Mental Health Modernization and Reform suggested integrating mental health into overall health discussions to promote understanding and education and to normalize conversations about behavioral health (Recommendation 4.7, Page 87). Learn more about the special committee’s recommendations to modernize the state’s behavioral health system.
Kansas Responds to Mental Health Challenges
Improving the mental health of Kansans and the care environment to meet their needs is an ongoing challenge. According to Mental Health America’s 2023 measures, Kansas ranked last overall. Data for Kansas indicated high prevalence of mental health conditions among youth and adults and low rankings for access to care.
In Kansas, greater investment is being made in behavioral health. Most recently, on May 17, the state allocated $37.7 million in grants from the federally funded COVID-19 Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) fund to strengthen behavioral health services in Kansas by increasing bed capacity with the addition of two new facilities, one in Sedgwick County and the other in Olathe. This added a total of 122 adult and youth beds. Kansas also has adopted the certified community behavioral health clinic model to increase access to care.
Suicide in Kansas
In the past two decades, suicide rates in Kansas have risen. In 2020, there were 26 suicide deaths among youth age 10-17. Among adults age 19 or older, there were 518 suicides in 2021, surpassing the previous year. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is accepting applications until June 16 from health organizations to implement the Zero Suicide in Health Systems treatment framework as part of its system of care programming, specifically targeting adults age 25 and older residing in Kansas. The goal is to establish partnerships with health systems throughout the state and work together to reduce suicide ideations, attempts and deaths.
In March 2023, the governor announced the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services awarded $525,000 to 15 community organizations across the state to develop strategies to prevent suicide for at-risk Kansans of all ages. The plans are expected to include conducting a community assessment, building suicide prevention infrastructure, addressing cultural competency and ensuring prevention efforts are evidence-based.
Another milestone in suicide prevention was the implementation of the national 988 suicide prevention and crisis lifeline, intended to intervene in crisis scenarios for those experiencing severe mental and behavioral health episodes. Between January 2022 and February 2023, 19,834 calls made to 988 were answered in Kansas. The future for 988 includes a transformed crisis care system, linking lifeline callers to community-based behavioral health services. Learn more about the 988 Coordinating Council, which KHI helps facilitate.
Homelessness and ACEs
Certain populations are disproportionately affected by mental health conditions, including those experiencing housing instability. In Kansas, and across the country, homelessness is on the rise. This rise can be attributed to factors such as severe mental health challenges, substance use disorder, lack of affordable housing, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and more.
Research has evaluated ACEs as being a strong risk factor for individuals becoming homeless. ACEs also tend to be experienced substantially higher among those who are experiencing homelessness than the general population.
ACEs may include forms of abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, familial substance use and instances of suicide attempts or deaths among family members and friends. These experiences significantly impact a child’s sense of safety, stability and parental bonding, which can ultimately influence short and long-term mental health. Without adequate and person-centered prevention and intervention, a combination of these scenarios and factors can perpetuate cycles of trauma and mental health deterioration for generations to come.
To help mitigate mental health challenges for children enrolled in public schools, the approved state budget for FY 2024 allocates $3 million SGF ($13.5 million in total), to be used to expand the Mental Health Intervention Pilot Program to 15-25 additional school districts. The program creates agreements between schools and community mental health centers (CMHCs) to eliminate barriers for students and families needing clinical therapy and access to CMHC services.
The causes of homelessness vary, emphasizing the need to comprehend root causes and address barriers that perpetuate homelessness. Acquiring a permanent address and necessary identification documents is crucial for accessing benefits like health insurance coverage, social support and permanent housing. Helping individuals obtain these items and establish an address are key objectives for organizations working with Kansans who are homeless.
To learn more about how the Kansas Legislature discussed homelessness this session, read the House Welfare Reform Committee survey from Week 11 of the 2023 Session.
The Behavioral Health Workforce
Health care and social assistance is a major employment sector in Kansas, but funding and support are needed to fill the persistent service gaps and expand the behavioral health workforce. KHI took a closer look at this issue and identified workforce shortages and strategies to address this challenge. Most Kansas counties have a shortage of behavioral health providers, and a robust workforce is needed to address the mental and behavioral health challenges faced by Kansans. Read more about KHI’s work defining Kansas’ behavioral health workforce and addressing behavioral health workforce needs.
During Mental Health Awareness Month, we recognize the mental health challenges faced by our friends, family, neighbors and ourselves. Behavioral health provider organizations in Kansas highlight the need for policymakers to prioritize addressing barriers contributing to those experiencing the spectrum of mental health conditions. Addressing those barriers may lead to more effective interventions, enhance access to mental health services and develop comprehensive strategies to tackle these issues effectively. Read the Report of the Special Committee on Kansas Mental Health Modernization and Reform to the 2022 Kansas Legislature for how Kansas can prioritize issues related to behavioral health.