For several years, U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins has pressed for federal grants in annual appropriations bills to train teachers, police officers and other public workers to recognize and help people in mental health crisis.
The 21st Century Cures Act that President Barack Obama signed Tuesday includes $15 million in annual training grants through 2022.
The Cures Act is a sweeping piece of legislation that changes the way the federal government regulates the drug industry and provides mental health services. It also includes billions in medical research funds.
Jenkins, a Republican from Topeka, made several contributions to the final product, including the grant funds for Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour course intended to help first responders and other people de-escalate tense situations.
“This is kind of a first-step program that really equips law enforcement officers, teachers, community leaders — those sorts of folks —with tools they need to come to the aid of people living with mental illness who haven’t received the help and the care that they need,” Jenkins said in a phone interview Monday.
Before she was elected to Congress, Jenkins became versed in mental health issues as a board member for the Family Service and Guidance Center, a community mental health center based in Topeka.
The National Council for Behavioral Health touts the Mental Health First Aid courses, which are offered by a variety of government agencies and nonprofit organizations nationwide that are eligible for the grants.
As of Monday, a database on the behavioral health council’s website listed 14 courses being offered next year in Kansas in Lawrence, South Haven, Salina, Parsons and Hutchinson.
Half the courses will be offered by the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence.
The center’s CEO, David Johnson, wrote a letter supporting Jenkins’ push for the federal grants last year, saying the center had certified more than 1,200 Douglas County residents through the courses.
“Just as CPR training helps a layperson with no clinical training assist an individual following a heart attack, Mental Health First Aid training helps a layperson assist someone experiencing a mental health crisis, such as contemplating suicide,” Johnson wrote.
The Cures Act also includes a reauthorization of $50 million in federal grants under the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act.
Those can be used specifically for criminal justice programs, including mental health courts and crisis intervention team training — a more intensive 40-hour mental health course geared specifically to law enforcement officers.
Jenkins said that pairs with the Mental Health First Aid program to give law enforcement officers useful tools for protecting people with mental problems.
Ed Klumpp, a former Topeka police chief who lobbies on behalf of several law enforcement groups, said the mental health training has broad support within those organizations, but funding has always been an obstacle.
The federal grants don’t solve that problem, he said, but they should help.
“If it helps us to offset some of those expenses, for the small agencies especially, so they can participate, everything we get is worthwhile,” Klumpp said. “It’s probably not the funding that will allow us to take it to every officer in the state, but certainly any funding like that will help.”
Jenkins said the 2014 police shooting of 18-year-old Ottawa resident Joseph Jennings underscored the need for more mental health training in law enforcement.
Jennings was fatally shot in a store parking lot hours after he was released from a hospital psychiatric ward following a suicide attempt.
“What happened to Joseph was a tragedy,” Jenkins said. “My heart still goes out to that family. We can all agree we need to do everything we can to train law enforcement agents with the skills they need to recognize who it is that needs their help.”