New proposed mental health funding targets high-risk cases

Alex Sonnich, Washburn Review

Earlier this month, Governor Sam Brownback announced plans to inject funding into Kansas mental health facilities. It comes as his administration works to eliminate potential tragedies like Sandy Hook, in which 20 children and six staff members were killed.

In the aftermath of these crises, legislators across the country have begun shifting their priorities to prevent these violent incidents from occurring again. In Kansas in particular, Brownback is proposing $10 million in funding to create five to seven regional offices to help treat the state’s most at-risk individuals.

The initiative will be focused on “intense case management,” as described by Shawn Sullivan, secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services in his remarks to the Kansas Health Institute.

The proposed legislation has been met with both praise and criticism. Many mental health care advocates are crying foul, as the $10 million is not planned to be additional funding, but rather existing money shifted from other areas of the state’s mental health care system. Others have argued that the premise of targeting high-risk patients is too narrow to be effective.

“I think it’s so much more complex than just looking at these severe cases,” said Marilynn Koelliker, Director of Counseling Services at Washburn. “If you look at some of these people who perpetrated these awful acts of violence, they have often lost their relational connections, significant connections.”

The proposal comes after several years in which Kansas mental health services have seen significant cuts in their funding. Community health centers in the state saw a 65 percent reduction in state grants in the past five years, according to the Kansas Health Institute.

In terms of dollars, a recent US Surgeon General’s report estimates $19 million has been cut from Kansas’ mental health system since 2008. Some of these cuts have potentially affected Washburn’s counseling services workload.

“It’s kind of hard to know, except we too see an increase in the use of our services,” said Koelliker. “We know that incoming freshmen or student transfers come here and have already been involved in the mental health world.”

Despite cuts to the state’s services, Washburn’s Counseling Center remains free for students. The staff is comprised of Koelliker (a clinical social worker), a licensed clinical psychotherapist, and a master’s-level psychology intern. They offer counseling sessions and recommend students to other mental health facilities, some of which have seen significant funding cuts in recent years.

“Evenings and weekends, it’s more like I’m on call,” said Koelliker. “So, if campus police sees or gets called in to some type of student crisis, I get called at home and either concur with what they tell me, to transfer them to Stormont Vail West or another hospital. Or I come in and often meet with the student in my office or any place on campus.”

Whether future legislation will impact Washburn remains to be seen. However, Brownback has indicated the current plan is no cure-all, and has invited advice on further action.

In an interview with the Kansas Health Institute, Rick Cagan, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, supports bringing in differing ideas for mental health care reform.

“He hasn’t figured out the details of what it is he wants to do. He’s been pretty transparent about that,” said Cagan. “But he’s also made clear that he wants advocates to have a place at the table. That’s a good thing.”

In a state that spends roughly $433 million per year on mental health services, further details of the proposed $10 million will be necessary to gauge the impact it will have on delivery of mental health services.

Koelliker agrees with the notion that more reform is needed to address the issues of mental illness and violence, stressing the need for early awareness of signs that lead to violence.

“The awareness and the ability to react to that, it’s kind of like the Homeland Security slogan of ‘See something, Say something.’ It’s much like that with students when they start the school system,” she said.