Kansas mental health caseloads have increased since 2006, in part because the stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment has gone down.
But in some cases, mental health advocates say, people struggle to access treatment because of budget cuts and transportation issues.
With mental health centers facing more demand for services amid funding challenges, they are looking for new ways to support their clients, according to Sheli Sweeney, advocacy and member services coordinator of the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas.
Services in schools
While all 26 community mental health centers across the state work with local school districts, only about half of the centers have clinicians in the schools, Sweeney said.
She said it depends on whether the mental health centers or school districts can financially support staff in the schools and if Medicaid funds are available for the services in bigger districts.
“If we had more money and more staff, we would probably have a staff member in every school we could possibly afford (to put) one into,” Sweeney said. “But right now that’s not very feasible.”
For more than 15 years, master’s-level social workers from the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center’s WRAP program have worked in the Lawrence and Eudora school districts.
According to Marilyn Hull, program and communications officer at the Douglas County Community Foundation, these workers identify and address mental health issues in children where they spend most of their day: in their schools.
But Bert Nash Center is dealing with a decreasing federal grant as Kansas school districts face budget cuts. With fewer clinicians able to work in the schools, Bert Nash Center saw a drop in the number of children and families served, Hull said.
Janice Storey, director of child and family services at Bert Nash Center, said the center is providing the middle range of WRAP staffing — it’s not the highest it’s been, but it’s no longer at its lowest. This is due to financial commitments from county officials and community members, who understand how effective WRAP services are in helping the well-being of children, she said.
Providing a lift
Bert Nash Center also is looking for ways to help when school’s not in session. The Douglas County Community Foundation is providing a $15,000 grant to the Bert Nash Center so it can purchase a vehicle to transport children and families who can’t access the center’s services.
Storey said the center hopes to purchase the mini-bus from a local dealership before the summer. While the grant likely won’t cover the vehicle’s cost, Bert Nash Center will pay for the additional costs and vehicle training.
“For the summer, our focus (for the mini-bus) will be on our summer programming,” she said. “But beyond that our scope will be much wider.”
During the summer, Bert Nash Center provides camps for children with mental health issues who struggle with peer interactions. The van will be used to take groups of children into the community, where they interact during activities and learn how to manage their symptoms.
The transition from summer back to school is easier if a child receiving therapy attends the camp, so they don’t lose the skills they’ve developed during the school year, Storey said.
But when summer comes, these children may not have access to transportation and their therapy stops.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Democrat from Lawrence, is on the board of directors at Bert Nash Center. She said that regular therapy is important for people facing mental health issues.
“You have to be pretty consistent on a normal basis,” Ballard said. “That’s why you end up often with the same therapist, or you go with the group and you’re with the same people in the group.”
While Lawrence has a public transportation system, it’s not always manageable for children to ride alone, Storey said.
She said WRAP counselors at the Eudora elementary school are identifying and talking with families about whether they need transportation before the camps start in June.
“We are excited to get kids from Eudora in these groups,” Storey said.
Early treatment vital
Rick Cagan, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said transportation is a common challenge for people with mental health issues.
Cagan said most Kansas towns, especially those in rural areas, don’t have public transportation.
Although televideo service has expanded mental health treatment for rural residents, he said little progress has been made on transportation options.
One in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder, and about half of those children are getting treatment, Cagan said. Providing treatment while they are young is vital, he said, because 75 percent of lifetime cases of serious mental illness begin between age 14 and 24.
“Our best opportunities to improve well-being and longevity for recovery from serious mental illness are to intervene at a younger age,” Cagan said.
He said it’s admirable that Bert Nash is trying to re-engage clients in services, instead of bowing to the challenges of transportation and in-school staffing.