Providers address challenges with accessing mental health services

Published: Jun. 1, 2022 at 10:38 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Circumstances surrounding the arrest of a Hutchinson man accused of threatening mass violence against employees where he worked sheds light on some issues surrounding mental healthcare and access to help. Family of 24-year-old Andrew Patterson turned him in, leading to an arrest they said was in large part a result of an inability to get help for him as his mental health was deteriorating.

The situation has us asking how to go about access mental health services and getting those in need into available programs.

While more dialogue is dedicated to mental health than used to be the case, there can oftentimes be unknowns in how to respond.

“It seems like we all know what to do if somebody falls and breaks their arm, but nobody knows what to do if you see a mental health crisis instead of a physical health crisis,” said Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas Director of Development and Communications Eric Litwiller.

Litwiller said the first step is to know there are resources. But he acknowledged it can be challenging to convince someone they need help, so it’s important to keep communication open.

“Make sure that you’re inviting these folks to talk with you openly and honestly about what their struggles are and what they’re going through,” he said.

Litwiller said there are situations in which police need to intervene when it comes to situations in which someone may be having a mental health crisis. For other cases, he said there are different local tools with with co-responder programs including ICT-1 and crisis intervention teams. He said funding mental health services is a constant concern and generally, it’s for treatment, not prevention.

“A lot of our prevention services are based in our children’s area because that’s the age where we can often keep a mental health issue from turning into mental illness 10-15 years down the road,” Litwiller said.

A challenge in Kansas is having enough providers. The Rural Health Information Hub reports based on federal data. Most Kansas counties are experiencing a mental-health-professional shortage. Inpatient beds is another shortage. A state taskforce on mental health reported in 1990 that state hospitals had about 1,000 inpatient beds for adults. By 2018, that total was down to 256 beds. While a handful of beds have been added in the last year, the task force recommended state hospitals add more than 220 beds by the end of 2023.

“Typically, an inpatient facility is going to take care of you for not very long, often times its four, five, six days. Their main job oftentimes is to is to kind of get you stabilized,” Litwiller said.

While the nationwide conversation continues about access to mental health services, largely spurred by recent shootings, one local provider emphasized there is a difference between mental health and violence.

“We just have to continue to educate that really, the major mental illnesses, and this isn’t a medical term, but (they) are brain diseases,” said Horizons Mental Health Center CEO Mike Garrett.

Garrett said for for those in need of help, the key is to walk through the doors with services lie same-day access.

“Just to show up, we’ll see anybody when they just show up,” he said.

As a safety-net clinic, Garrett said they don’t deny services based on someone’s ability to pay. But to do that means relying on state or local funding, which was cut more than a decade ago following the recession, before slowly being restored.

“it is still at an about 2009 level, so that’s been difficult, and there are times that that becomes overwhelming to mental health providers,” Garrett said.

He said another issue is staffing shortages. What has helped, Garrett said, is healthcare overall has integrated mental health.

“Primary care has become very good at diagnosing those problems and making those referrals,” he said.

With recent shootings leading to a lot of conversation about mental health, Garett said the distinction between violence and mental health is important.

“Contribute a little bit to the stigma that there’s kind of that sense that if a person has a mental illness, they’re a dangerous individual. That’s not true at all,” he said. “A small segment might have those symptoms that would lead them to be dangerous.”

Garrett said most of the people Horizons Mental Health works with are in recovery and working on a treatment program, but some of that stigma still exists in the health and judicial systems. He said they’re trying to address this perception with programs like mental health first aid and training.

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