Creating Community Solutions: Mental Health Panel

    On Sept. 26, Kansas State University’s Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy (ICDD) and the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum co-hosted an informational panel about mental health. Six panelists from different backgrounds showed us several aspects of mental illness.

     Robbin Waldner Cole, executive director of Pawnee Mental Health Services in Manhattan was the first panelist. She gave three ways that a community could improve mental health care. First, Cole said, communities need to improve knowledge about mental health. There needs to be public information classes that equip private citizens with the ability to help. The second way that people can help is to reduce the stigma given to having a mental illness. People need to know that they won’t lose the respect of others or their ability for meaningful involvement in the community. The final way one can help is by preserving resources. There needs to be more community mental health facilities, offering 24/7/365 care regardless of ability to pay.

    Steve Kmetz, Salina Rescue Mission, was our second panelist. He gave an explanation of how the Rescue Mission helps get their male clients back into society. “We do our best to get them back to where they need to be and that is with their families,” Kmetz said. He told the audience that yesterday there were 72 men at the Rescue Mission. The Salina Rescue Mission is able to report the side effects these individuals are having and help manage medication. Without this assistance, these individuals struggle to communicate any problems they are having with medication and dosage.

    Our third panelist was Meredith Butler, Director of the 8th Judicial District Community Corrections, which handles both juvenile and adult felony offenders. Butler said 58% of those placed on probation who end up back in prison have issues with substance abuse and 23% are struggling with mental illness. She stressed the problem is that while in prison these individuals don’t receive any treatment. Butler informed those in attendance that many times when someone has a substance abuse problem it is because they are trying to self-medicate to treat a mental illness. The biggest challenge Butler faces at the community corrections office is motivating people to change.

    Larry McRell, J.D., Chief Public Defender at the North Central Regional Public Defender Office in Junction City was our fourth speaker. Many violent offenders have significant mental health illnesses.  ”Once they are arrested it is too late,” McRell said. “We need to stop the criminalization of mental health patients,” he added. “Jail staff isn’t there for treatment. They are there to maintain security.” It is important to get mental health patients out of the jails and into facilities for treatment they so desperately need.

    Paul Smith, member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Flint Hills affiliate, told a personal story about his son’s struggle with paranoid schizophrenia. When the Smiths first realized their son had a mental illness, they attempted to take him to the local mental health institution, where he was released 72 hours after arrival. “We were told that the only way to get him into treatment was to call the police,” Smith said. Paul and his wife never thought they could call the police on their own son, but ended up doing it three times before he got any help. The first two times, the police told him they couldn’t do anything because he wasn’t harm to himself or others. The third time, he had a loaded 357 magnum pointed at Paul. This time the son spent three weeks in treatment and is now back at home with his parents. “You just have to take it one day at a time. If today is a good day, you hope tomorrow will be even better,” Smith said. A couple of ways Smith identified that could help community mental health are community awareness and funding.

    Our final speaker was Rick Cagan, the Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Kansas. NAMI is the largest grassroots mental health organization. It is represented in all 50 states and has been around for 35 years. Cagan gave many startling statistics, 50% of people who have a mental illness aren’t in treatment. Facilities don’t have the resources to care for these people if they were to seek the treatment they need. Some statistics say that up to 85% of children in juvenile detention centers have some sort of mental illness. “The mental health system is broken,” Cagan said. Some of the ways that the community can help, according to Cagan, are to educate the public, become a mental health advocate and to help decriminalize mental illness.

    On Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. ICDD and the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum will host a forum for people to discuss approaches to improve community responses to mental illness. Join the conversation at the Visitors Center Auditorium in Abilene, Kan.

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