As the 2018 legislative session begins, lawmakers are promising to make the quality and availability of mental health services a top priority.
For example, Sen. Laura Kelly is the ranking member of the Senate health committee, and she says the Legislature has to address a range of problems with the state’s psychiatric hospitals: “We’re going to have to talk about the hospitals. They’re understaffed, underfunded and underperforming, so we’ve got work to do on them.” Meanwhile, House Speaker Ron Ryckman recently pointed out the economic benefits of greater public investment in mental health services: “Sometimes a little bit of investment early in some programs can be beneficial not just to the patient but to the state and the taxpayers in the long run.”
This is particularly true when it comes to the incarceration of mentally ill members of our community. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, in the United States, “approximately 20 percent of inmates in jails and 15 percent of inmates in state prisons are now estimated to have a serious mental illness,” which means there are 10 times more mentally ill Americans incarcerated than in state hospitals. In January 2013, Kansas Department of Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts estimated that 38 percent of that state’s inmates suffered from a mental illness, while 14 percent had a severe and persistent mental illness.
Nearly 25 percent of the inmates in the Shawnee County Department of Corrections have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
These numbers are far too high. Prisons and jails are terrible places for people with mental illnesses — they aren’t equipped to provide the necessary treatment, they impose rigid rules and punishments that disproportionately harm mentally ill inmates, and they can’t provide the consistent care and stability that mentally ill people need. Due to behavioral problems that stem from these issues, the Treatment Advocacy Center reports that mentally ill inmates typically remain in prison much longer than other people. They also cost much more to incarcerate and they’re overrepresented in solitary confinement.
Although Kansas has far fewer mental health hospital beds than it did in the 1990s, community mental health programs haven’t expanded to meet the need. According to Rick Cagan, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Kansas, this needs to change: “The key to keeping people in the community, getting treatment there — out of the hospital, out of the emergency room, and of course, out of jail — is having accessible and adequate community based treatment.” This is why we need more programs like NAMI’s Family to Family Workshop, which provides information about treatments and educates the community about mental illness.
In December 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decertified Osawatomie State Hospital over staffing and safety issues. While that certification has been restored (along with $1 million in monthly federal funds), CMS is threatening to decertify Larned State Hospital for violating federal rules on the safety of its facilities. The survey was conducted in October, and state officials were informed that Larned would lose its funding in January if the necessary renovations aren’t made.
It’s clear that lawmakers are right to emphasize the improvement of our strained mental health system. Now it’s time to see if they’ll actually deliver.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.