Six legislators, a mentally ill man and the father of another agreed Friday at Kansas University that Kansas isn't a hospitable place for the chronically mentally ill but they disagreed about the prescription for reforming the system.
During a conference, "Mental Health Reform in Kansas: Possibilities and Prescription," lawmakers, educators and consumer advocates came together to discuss problems in the state's mental health delivery system and offer possible solutions.
The gathering was timely because a legislative committee has been working on a mental health reform package developed by Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, and the governor's task force on mental health this week recommended a series of reforms.
HELGERSON said that although Kansas ranks 14th in the nation in per capita spending on the mentally ill, the quality of care has declined since the 1950s. The sorry state of affairs reflects the disjointed way services are organized, he said.
"We learned . . . what we did not have was an integrated system," he said. "The integrated system has to work between the hospitals, the community programs, between private providers and public providers. That has been the key problem."
"It is our role and obligation to provide services to these individuals where they need them in the least restrictive environment. We should not put them in the state hospitals because we have not taken the time to develop community programs," Helgerson said.
HOUSE MINORITY Leader Marvin Barkis, D-Louisburg, and House Majority Floor Leader Robert H. Miller, R-Wellington, warned conference participants that the mental health reform movement in Kansas could be hampered by a lack of state finances.
"Decisions made in the era we're in will increasingly become a matter of tough choices," Barkis said. "The truth is we are short of money going into the (1990) session. We're in an era where there are going to be a lot of people grabbing for scarce resources."
Bill Simon, coordinator of Project Acceptance in Lawrence, which seeks to integrate people with mental illness into the community, delivered a fiery five-minute speech. He asked the audience to look at the issue through the eyes of a mentally ill person.
"I SEE A real world of pain and poverty and almost criminal neglect of the unmet need of the mentally ill in our city," said Simon, who has been treated for mental illness for 25 years. "It's cost me a career, a marriage and some alienation from my children."
"I am a representative voice of the mental health consumer and as such my task is to address our pain, our needs and our dreams. As a consumer advocate, compromise, fiscal restraint, cost effectiveness are words that are foreign to my vocabulary."
Sen. Gus Bogina, R-Shawnee, chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee, said that while other states have concentrated on helping the mentally ill in their home communities, Kansas tried "every excuse or reason to place people in institutions."
THE STATE has made the mistake of funneling too much of its mental health money to state hosptials, Bogina said, even though other states found long ago that it's more humane and cheaper to house and treat mentally ill people in communities.
"We had to shift funds which might have gone to community-based services to maintain and sustain those hospitals," he said. "We need to reduce our dependency on the hospitals. We have people falling through the cracks. They have for many years."
Cecil Eyestone of Manhattan, who is president of the Kansas Association for the Mentally Ill, said the state needs a system that "reaches out and systematically provides long term continuous care and treatment not this piecemeal system that we've had."
HE SAID lack of formal coordination between the state's 30 community mental health centers and the four state hospitals causes mentally ill individuals to be released into hostile settings with no professional support. Many end up in jail, he said.
Eyestone said that his 36-year-old mentally ill son was sent at noon Friday to a Topeka hospital after authorities found him near Marion County Lake. Lack of a united, well-defined and effective mental health system in Kansas is a tragedy, he said.
"This sadness, the emotional and physical stress plus the financial obligations incurred by a family with a mentally ill loved one you can't feel the despair that we have unless you have had this experience. I pray that none of you will have it," he said.
Dave Seaton, editor and publisher of the Winfield Daily Courier, was honored at the conference with a plaque for his contributions to advancing mental health policy in Kansas. He was chairman of the Governor's Task Force on Mental Health Reform.