Kansas’ shortage of behavioral health experts exacerbates community treatment challenges

Kansas' shortage of behavioral health experts exacerbates community treatment challenges

TOPEKA — Psychologist Shawna Wright said only four of the state’s 105 counties have enough behavioral health professionals to meet demands of the population, and that shortage contributes to looping of mentally ill people in and out of the criminal justice system.

“We need quality behavioral health care in Kansas regardless of geography,” she said. “We’re still very underserved.”

The Rural Health Information Hub, a statistical resource funded by a federal grant, indicated the cluster of Johnson, Wyandotte, Douglas and Shawnee counties in the northeast part of the state had sufficient personnel to serve community needs. In 2017, part of Sedgwick County was covered. Now, the entire county is considered underserved.

Wright, associate director of the University of Kansas Center for Telemedicine and Telehealth, told participants at the two-day Kansas Mental Health Summit in Topeka that telemedicine had potential to improve patient access to care, advance education of students and support continuing education of professionals. Telemedicine shouldn’t be viewed as a mental health panacea, she said, because it wouldn’t quickly change the workforce deficit.

The summit was organized to focus on judicial and community implications to the high percentage of mental illness among incarcerated individuals.

“Mental illness impacts all of our court dockets,” said Patti Tobias, a court management consultant with the National Center for State Courts. “It impacts all our communities. It impacts all our families. It impacts all our friends and neighbors. It is pervasive and we need to do better.”

Marc Bennett, district attorney in Sedgwick County, said stability in the life of someone with chronic mental illness was related to treatment, housing and employment. The court system can help with each of these factors by reducing the number of people with suspended Kansas driver’s licenses so they can work on these priorities, he said.

In addition, he said, the court system could improve outcomes by consolidating an individual’s cases to one jurisdiction. Someone with a mental health disorder will find it difficult to work with probation officers in a series of cities or counties, he said.

“A lot of people who are in trouble are in trouble in multiple places,” Bennett said. “When you’re on probation in three, four or five different places, you’re likelihood of being successful is going to be highly diminished.”

Wyandotte County District Court Judge Michael Russell said the county’s post-sentencing behavioral health court showed promise with people diagnosed with persistent mental illness.

The special court in Wyandotte County was established in 2017 and required collaboration with defense lawyers, prosecutors, mental health therapists and substance abuse counselors, he said.

“They are considered to be high risk, high needs,” said Russell, who said community partnerships were crucial to success of specialty courts.

He said the goal was to create individual treatment plans for adult residents of Wyandotte County placed on probation. Successful intervention through the special court can reduce time spent in the justice system, curtail recidivism and increase public safety, he said.

State Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said she was optimistic the Kansas Senate would follow the lead of the Kansas House by approving a 988 suicide prevention hotline. Another goal is to expand the number of crisis intervention units that can be dispatched with information drawn from hotline calls, she said.

Kansas will have to do more to increase the number of mental health personnel working across the state, Landwehr said. She said the state hadn’t recovered from the departure of the renowned Menninger clinic from Topeka to Houston nearly 20 years ago.

“My goal is to put Kansas back on the map where it belongs,” the lawmaker said.

Wright, the psychologist with a background in rural service delivery, said cities and counties in Kansas should avoid reinventing the wheel when striving to enhance mental health services. She said the state’s experiment with placing counselors in public schools could be adopted to work in the justice system.

“If there is a passion and a desire to move forward, it’s about looking at systems that work and tailor them to your own community,” she said.

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