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Documentary casts light on Kansas City’s mental health care challenges

By | September 30, 2014

The state of Kansas City's mental health care services is dire, according to a forthcoming new documentary.

A Kansas City, Mo., police officer and a mental health liaison talk with a man in need of mental health services. A new documentary focuses on the growing number of confrontations between people with mental health issues and police on Kansas City's streets.

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Journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Price's "Lost Minds: KC's Mental Health Crisis" focuses on the growing number of confrontations between people with mental illness and police on Kansas City's streets. The locally produced documentary airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 1, on KCPT.

There are five professional mental health liaisons in Kansas City, Mo., who ride along with Kansas City Police Department officers once a month to visit with mentally ill Kansas Citians — residents who could pose a danger to themselves and others.

In an interview with Steve Kraske on KCUR's "Up to Date," Price said the liaisons are dealing with nearly three times the number of cases they ordinarily would oversee. And that means they aren't getting enough time to help individuals who need their attention most.

"They're being asked to swim against a tsunami," Price said. "In the 10 months up to last July, KCPD Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers and liaisons dealt with nearly 60 incidents where a mentally ill person was in crisis and armed with a weapon."

Though liaisons are overwhelmed, KCPD officers have been receiving crisis intervention team training to learn how to de-escalate confrontations with mentally ill individuals.

"Rather than rolling out of their cop cars with guns pulled, CIT-trained officers try to talk people down," Price said. "Unfortunately, only 15 percent of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. offer this kind of training."

"Lost Minds: KC's Mental Health Crisis" will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 1, on KCPT.

One of the biggest obstacles to improving mental health care is funding. Missouri state Sen. Kiki Curls, who sits on the Senate's appropriations committee, told "Up to Date" that politics often comes into play when dealing with funding for mental health care.

"I think everyone recognizes that this is a critical issue," Curls said. "But even this year, there was money that was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, and specifically a project here in Kansas City to create a crisis stabilization center."

Dr. Keith Schafer, director of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, agreed that more funding is needed for mental health services. Schafer told "Up to Date" that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which the Missouri Legislature has not done, would help extend mental health care to more individuals.

"If we would expand Medicaid in this state, 300,000 people would get benefits, and 50,000 of those people need mental health or substance abuse help," Schafer said. "It is the greatest issue in the state of Missouri, in terms of resources [for mental health care]."

While Price agreed that Medicaid expansion would greatly help, he said the situation on the streets requires more immediate action and could be done for much less money.

"For each liaison to go out twice a week with a police escort would cost $20,000 a year," Price said. "Relatively speaking, that's peanuts [compared to Medicaid expansion]."

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