Local leaders talk about mental health access, breaking down barriers and creating awareness

Rep. Sharice Davids hosted a roundtable with local leaders on mental health access.

Mental health and access to proper treatment are community issues that need to be addressed at all levels — from schools and law enforcement to homes and in state legislation — said several local leaders on Thursday in a panel discussion. And while progress is giving leaders in Johnson County hope for the future, there is still work to be done.

These were the top themes that emerged during the a roundtable discussion on mental health hosted by Rep. Sharice Davids at the Roeland Park Community Center. Davids invited several speakers to talk about access to mental healthcare and address the disparities hindering access in both Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

Rep. Sharice Davids

“At least the folks that I’ve already had conversations with recognize that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and I think there are people on both sides of the aisle who want to work on especially prescription drug costs and getting people the help they need,” Davids said.

The following officials participated in the mental healthcare roundtable:

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly was invited as well, but she was unable to attend because she was attending to storm damage from a tornado in north central Kansas earlier this week.

Barriers to mental healthcare

Randy Callstrom, president and chief executive officer of Wyandot Inc. in Kansas City, Kansas

The panelists recognized several factors as key barriers for people in the area who need mental health and wellness treatment. Something as simple as lack of transportation and location of treatment areas can hinder access. Plus, the panelists recognized there is still a stigma around mental health. Awareness and knowledge about where to go for help is also a barrier.

“The more we can do to create public awareness about where to go for help I think is pretty critical,” Callstrom said, adding that for many, the lack of health insurance or perception that people can’t afford treatment without insurance is another barrier.

Tim DeWeese, director of Johnson County Mental Health

High deductibles or lack of insurance altogether create barriers for people seeking treatment as well. DeWeese said that because Kansas lawmakers didn’t expand Medicaid this year, mental health treatment facilities are also missing out on federal funding opportunities.

“It’s an issue that builds upon itself,” DeWeese said, adding that he thinks mental healthcare needs to be taken as seriously as physical healthcare.

DeWeese cited the Kansas state government’s decision against participating in the federal Excellence in Mental Health Centers Act as a setback in funding opportunities for Kansans.

“Kansas saw absolutely zero of those funds come to our state because we chose not to participate,” DeWeese said, adding that the key is for Kansas to tap into federal funding opportunities in the future.

Reducing mental health stigma lies in ‘compassion, understanding and commitment’

Tom Herzog, chief operating officer of Netsmart Technologies in Overland Park

Herzog said steps are being taken now to define mental health, which is vital to identifying proper solutions, treatment and prevention.

“When we’re starting to look at health, we’re not disassociating the mind from the body,” Herzog said. “For the first time, we’re having those conversations together.”

DeWeese said state and local government leaders can be making steps to break down barriers and create better access, but individuals in the community must step up as well to break down the stigma around mental health issues through “compassion, understanding and commitment.”

Todd White, superintendent of Blue Valley School District

“We can all demonstrate that each and every day,” DeWeese said. “If we’re truly going to get serious about addressing mental health issues, then we have to start changing our language. We have to start approaching things from a standpoint where we can have those conversations and be compassionate with one another.”

Addressing mental health issues in local schools is also vital for healthy communities, the panelists said.

In the past year, 15 teenagers in six school districts in Johnson County took their own lives, White said. Being able to help children and young adults in the school districts must be addressed as a community, and students have been a part of those conversations in addressing teen mental health issues, he added.

At the same time, teachers and staff need access to mental healthcare and optimal work environments so they can be their best selves when instructing and assisting their students, White said. Incorporating social workers in Blue Valley schools has also been helpful.

The Roeland Park Community Center was filled with local stakeholders in mental health issues.

Callstrom said partnerships with law enforcement agencies in Wyandotte County — about 80 percent of officers have completed crisis intervention training — can also help people who need treatment.

Helping people know where to go when they need help is a major first step, the panelists said. DeWeese said he also hopes the Johnson County Mental Health Center can be the “gateway” that connects people to the resources they need.

Asking people if they are OK is also a great way to check on each other and look out for one another, White added.

“This conversation can be so hopeless because we don’t necessarily have good legislation; we’re not taking advantage of some of the things that are available to us,” White said. “I’d like to leave you with something that’s hopeful: Simply ask people how are you and be willing to enter into that conversation. We have the antidote: It’s called being human, reaching out and connecting.”