Mental Health — Gap widens – Too many are falling through as community struggles with lack of services

Mental Health — Gap widens – Too many are falling through as community struggles with lack of services March 2007
The Capital-Journal Editorial Board – Published Sunday, March 04, 2007
Not that long ago, Topeka was recognized far and wide as a leader in the treatment of mental illness.
Today, that safety net, supported to a great extent on one side by Topeka State Hospital and on the other by Menninger, is, if not gone entirely, hanging by shreds.

We were reminded of that recently when a Topeka man was struck, and fatally injured, while walking along the interstate southwest of the city. Turns out, Stuart Williams had schizophrenia and was living in a group home for people with mental illness.

Indeed, earlier on the day he was struck by the truck, the man had been evaluated at a local mental health facility.

The intent here isn’t to cast blame on that facility, which evaluated him and then released him.

No, our concern and that of a growing number of health care professionals in and around Topeka is the shockingly meager amount of support available to the mentally ill in a city once nicknamed a “mental health mecca.”

Dire forecasts of what would happen to the mentally ill population in northeast Kansas after Topeka State Hospital was closed in 1997 and Menninger moved its world-famous psychiatric center to Houston six years later are proving all too disturbingly accurate.

The death last month of Mr. Williams merely puts a headline on the problem and concern.

A city that once attracted thousands in search of the best mental health care available seems at times now to be unable to provide even the most basic services.

Patients formerly referred to Topeka State Hospital and a staff trained in mental illness now often end up languishing in the Shawnee County jail, under the watch of guards who, through no fault of their own, have absolutely no training in handling the mentally ill.

Children once treated at Menninger’s Children’s Hospital now are referred to other agencies — excellent agencies in most cases but unprepared or unequipped to handle the overwhelming number of children with mental illnesses.

A recent letter to the editor written by an acquaintance of Mr. Williams warned of “an enormous vacuum in mental health treatment in our county.”

It is no exaggeration. Hard as it is to stomach, Kansas, the home of this one-time mental health mecca, now gets an “F” grade in quality of mental health services.

Last year, the National Alliance on Mental Health conducted its first comprehensive state-by-state analysis of mental health care systems in 15 years. Each state was scored on 39 specific criteria.

Eight states received “F”s.

It shouldn’t make anyone in Kansas feel any better than the average national grade was a disgraceful “D.”

Dr. Karl Menninger and his brother Dr. Will must be rolling over in their graves.

Many are surprised by this dramatic deterioration. Phil Williams isn’t.

It was his brother who was hit on I-470, and the accident prompted the family to tell Stuart Williams’ story.

“We’re trying to give Stuart a voice and prevent this from happening in the future,” Phil Williams said. “The system failed.”

That it failed in Topeka is shameful.


The Topeka Capitol Journal


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