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New mental health crisis strategy to launch in KC

By Alex Smith | March 19, 2014

Every day, police in the Kansas City region are inundated with calls to handle mental illness emergencies.

“Usually more than one time a day,” said Wyandotte County Sheriff Don Ash. “Calls could come in from a family member. Calls could come in from the general public, from a business owner.”

It might be someone with severe depression or who has schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

“People get off their medications,” Ash said. “They get to feeling better, don’t think they need to take ’em. And then after a period of time, they sort of relapse or they slip back.”

Police may pick up people for minor violations such as loitering or trespassing. Even though it is clearly a mental health emergency, he said, police typically have little choice but to take them to jail or an emergency room.

A Department of Justice report shows that nearly two-thirds of jail inmates have some kind of mental health problem. Some have committed real crimes, but many have not.

Ash believes taking these people to jail is not a great way to deal with a crisis, and it taps police resources.

“They’re not available to be doing what the public truly expects them to be doing, and that is really dealing with suppressing crime or investigating crime,” Ash said.

The Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, Kan., has been mostly closed since 2011 but will reopen in April as an around-the-clock crisis stabilization center for people with mental illness.

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Earlier this year, Gov. Sam Brownback came to Kansas City, Kan., to announce a plan he hopes will change the script.

Rainbow Mental Health Facility, a former state psychiatric hospital that has been mostly closed for the past few years, will be converted into a crisis stabilization facility where police can take people with mental health issues.

“It is our hope that this is going to be one of the most helpful and significant changes in the mental health system and its delivery in this state over the past, even couple of, decades,” Brownback said at the event.

Many involved in mental health agree the revamped facility near the University of Kansas Hospital could make a big difference. But they see it as just one step forward after years of lagging support for mental illness programs.

Susan Crain Lewis, president and CEO of Mental Health America of the Heartland and co-chair of the Metropolitan Mental Health Stakeholders, said mental health funding has steadily eroded for several years. “It’s not been a question of ‘Let’s get something more,’” she said. “It’s like ‘How can we hold on to the bare minimum?’”

State grants that helped community mental health centers in Kansas treat people without health insurance were created in the early 1990s. They were reduced by about 50 percent after the recession of 2008 and have not been restored to previous funding levels.

Lewis said those cuts have meant people with mental illness who are uninsured or underinsured can’t get the help they need.

“The minute you can’t go to your doctor for any amount of time, you get sicker,” she said.

Many advocates trace a new interest in mental health funding to the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where a 20-year-old man who may have had a mental illness killed 20 children and six teachers.

About a month after the Sandy Hook shootings, Brownback announced plans for a new Kansas mental health strategy. He said he would channel $10 million into a regional mental health hub system.

Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, Kan., has been all but empty since being cited for safety violations and staffing concerns in 2011. It will reopen April 1 as the first new around-the-clock crisis stabilization center in Kansas. Patients might stay a few hours or a few weeks. The new facility will have 10 longer-stay beds, compared to 50 beds that had been at Rainbow.

Ash, the Wyandotte County sheriff, said the facility will make a difference.

“I believe we will start to see a reduction in some of these people that we see, or that we see on a regular basis,” Ash said.

Lewis is optimistic but cautious about the change.

“It’s a huge help, but it doesn’t solve all of the problems,” she said.

While the crisis center will fill an important gap, Lewis said grant money still needs to be restored for community mental health centers. Those funds are needed to help people after they stay at the crisis center.

“The connection’s essential, but how long can that connection hold?” Lewis asked. “And how much can the community mental health center bear with no more revenue for the ongoing needs of those people?”

This story is part of a reporting partnership among the KHI News Service, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and KCPT.

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