County Update: Commissioner Fast discusses challenges of meeting community’s mental health needs

District 1 Commissioner Becky Fast.

Each week we provide a member of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners the opportunity to share an update on what issues are catching their attention. This week, we have a column from District 1 Commissioner Becky Fast.

More Kansans – including young people – are grappling with mental illness. The statistics are staggering: 1 in 5 young people suffer from a mental illness according to the Centers for Disease Control. This is an important statistic because mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and conduct disorder left untreated can increase the risk of repeating a grade, truancy, and dropping out of school.

Schools throughout the country are trying to address bullying and higher rates of suicide, the second leading cause of death for teenagers. Gardner Edgerton USD 231 and Johnson County Mental Health Center were selected as one of only 35 sites in the country to participate in a national pilot of teen Mental Health First Aid. This pilot program is definitely an important step, but a continuum of care for youth in Kansas is sorely needed.

When an adult is challenged by a mental health crisis that spirals out of control in a self-harming or results in an aggressive, destructive manner, then police are called in to help. In Johnson County, the struggling adult can be taken to a crisis center for immediate help at RSI which is open 24/7.

Currently, no such crisis center exists for teenagers across the state of Kansas. What’s more, the number of psychiatric residential treatment facility (PTRF) beds available to serve youth in Kansas has plummeted in recent years. Since 2011, access to PRTF’s for Kansas youth with chronic and severe behavioral health challenges has been severely cut from 17 facilities to eight facilities. In October 2018 there were 16 youth on a wait list from Johnson County with an average wait time of three to 12 weeks.

Thus, a suicidal teenager might then wind up in a hospital emergency rooms for treatment instead of an appropriate mental health facility. And the police officer who brings the youth in will often need to stay with them as the hospital is neither staffed nor designed to care for youth suffering a mental health crisis.

The Johnson County Department of Corrections and the Johnson County Mental Health Department are working on a solution. Together they proposed to the State of Kansas to operate a Juvenile Crisis Intervention Center to serve youth with acute behavioral health issues in need of immediate invention. The crisis center would also be an option for Johnson County parents to bring their children to as well.

The goal would be to provide 24/7 crisis stabilization and treatment planning for a spectrum of mental health, substance use, and trauma related concerns. Research demonstrates that people treated at crisis centers can often be stabilized within the first 48 hours.

But with limited psychiatric residential bed space and no youth crisis center, young people too often end up at the juvenile detention center as a last resort. This results in the unintended consequence of criminalizing mental illness.

The Johnson County Commission is currently discussing its 2020 Kansas legislative agenda. One of the priorities recommended by department staff is the provision of state funding for regional juvenile crisis intervention centers. Kansas has released a request for proposal to fund a juvenile crisis center.

Community leaders, local school districts, and concerned parents must join together to support policies that address the challenging mental health needs of our youth. A state and county partnership is needed, similar to RSI that was established by Kansas for adults.

As your District 1 Johnson County Commissioner, you can trust that I will be committed to attending to the mental health needs of our children and youth. After all, Johnson County has built its reputation as a community for families with children that strives for quality public schools, parks, and libraries.

A youth crisis center that is open 24/7 in Johnson County could help address the increasing behavioral and mental health needs of the county’s youth. The futures of our children are at stake.