Mental heath care takes turn for worse

January 29, 2011


Recently in the news there has been a lot of discussion about violence and mental illness as if the two were inexorably linked. This perceived linkage is heightened by tragedies such as the shootings at Virginia Tech and recently in Tucson. Both cases were clearly committed by people with serious mental disorders. In spite of the horrors of these events, they pale when compared to the 30,000 to 40,000 murders in this country each year as part of crimes, gangs and domestic violence.

So, what are we to believe about the mentally ill among us? Most of the mentally ill who live and work along side you, do so in shamed silence because of the stigma that would be attached to them if their “truth” were to be known.

In the mid-1960s I entered the mental health system as a patient in a now non-existent state hospital. At that time, there were over 5,000 state hospital beds in Kansas. Today, that figure hovers around 300 beds.

In the 1980s and ‘90s the trend became “deinstitutionalization” — close down as many state hospitals as possible and then, with the money “saved,” provide intensive outpatient care at local mental health centers. In addition, a number of community hospitals opened or expanded in-patient mental health units to meet short-term crisis needs.

In the mid-1980s, at the height of my worst mental health crisis, I became a patient at the mental health unit at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. This unit provided a wide array of social and psychiatric services in order to stabilize and return people to the community as functioning, contributing citizens.

This particular hospitalization lasted 40 days. A caring psychiatrist and wonderful support staff not only, literally, saved my life, but also helped me return to my job duties teaching your children in the public schools. Prior to that, I had been the first full-time director of the Ballard Center in the 1960s and, in the late 1970s, I was executive director of the Lawrence Housing Authority, where I secured the first Section 8 housing program for Lawrence. I tell you this story to illustrate that the mentally ill can be a contributing part of our community.

None of this is possible for a person with a serious mental illness in Lawrence today. LMH has no mental health unit. State hospital beds are at a premium. If you are committed to a state hospital you are handcuffed and shackled by the local sheriff’s department and transported to the state facility. There need be no “crime” involved for such a scenario to occur, only the “crime” of needing hospitalization for a mental illness.

If you have good insurance, you may find much more pleasant surroundings in a public-private hospital in Topeka or Kansas City — if a bed is available. But don’t need 40 days of care, as I did; that’s no longer an option due to tight restrictions now in place, thanks to the insurance lobby.

Remember that “saved” money that was supposed to go from reduced state hospitals to local mental health centers? With the new cuts proposed by the state, our local Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center will have suffered approximately $1.5 million in cuts in the past several years.

So Lawrence now has access to a grossly underfunded mental health center, no local hospital mental health unit, and state and larger city hospital mental health unit beds greatly reduced in number.

Today, our “mental health system” is increasingly transferred to the criminal justice system. Three hundred thousand people with major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are in U.S. jails or prisons. Today, another one-half million people with such illnesses are on probation. Today, the Los Angeles County Jail is considered to be the largest mental health care facility in America.

I believe the good people of Lawrence will be appalled by this outrageous treatment of our community’s mentally ill. I ask you to join me in starting to establish the beginning of a more humane treatment of the mentally ill by insisting on a mental health unit at LMH and a full restoration of all funds lost by the Bert Nash center. Together we can, and must, do this and more.


Jason Bennett 7 years, 1 month ago

Here's a great website that has murder and crime rates in the United States, so you don't have to just make numbers up anymore.

Over the last 15 years, the number of murders in the United States hasn't gone over 20,000, and usually not more than 16-17,000 per year.

Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.


Trucker_Todd 7 years, 1 month ago

By the FBI's own admission any numbers on the web are un-reliable, your source included. So technically you are making up numbers also.


With that being said your comment should not overshadow the fact that the other 99% of this piece is very provable, relevant and accurate.

Even if the numbers illustrated that only one person was put in danger because of a societies ignorance to those that need help, the blame for that is partly shared with the ones that chose to ignore the problem in the first place. As a culture we are only as strong as our weakest link and if we refuse to think it is not our responsibility to help others in their time of need then we will continue to see these numbers, whatever your starting point, rise.

mawils 7 years, 1 month ago

I agree that LMH needs a mental health unit. I myself have had to go to a mental health hospital in Topeka and they only keep you about 3 days. That's not much time for someone who is having such bad issues that they almost succeed at suicide. I myself had to return a few months later for another stay before they determined what my problem was and started treating me with the correct meds. It's sad that as big as Lawrence is that we have no way of helping people locally with inpatient care.

shadowlady 7 years, 1 month ago

I agree, we need a mental health ward here at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. In the past I have had a son and brother at different times that stayed in the mental health ward here in the hospital,( at least when we had a mental health unit here) and it helped them greatly. They were both on the verge of committing suicide. We need a good inpatient place for mental health people to go to. Something needs to be done.

not_that_crazy 7 years, 1 month ago

To the "average reader" this was very enlightening. I am not an expert on mental health issues, but it it made me me think about things I had never thought about before. Great thought provoking editorial.

Ralph Reed 7 years, 1 month ago

Good piece Bill. Well written.


ivalueamerica 7 years, 1 month ago

I consider Reagan criminal for closing all the government mental health hospitals to focus on community based services, then failing to fund community based services.

Now, here in Kansas, our new Governor is cutting funding to special education and closing KNI, leaving the only end result, those in most need without proper support and services let loose in our community to treated as criminals by the cops instead of patients by health care providers when they react to improper care.

Daniel Dicks 7 years, 1 month ago

LTE spot on truth!
But don't expect Brownback and co. to help.

m3rryweather 7 years, 1 month ago

A lot of what leads to worsening symptoms in the mentally ill population are the stigmas and prejudices they suffer at the hands of the rest of the people they come up against. Just because someone is mentally ill does not automatically make them incapable of being productive citizens on the right side of the law. For example,, a pack of people on a website who , since they know someone is mentally ill. they have used that as their reasoning that that person is sub-human and not worthy of respect or compassion but instead is inherently flawed and evil. Yet these supposedly mentally well and contributing members of society have not taken the time to actually sit down and TALK to this person. They have allowed themselves to fall in the trap of prejudice. Meanwhile thanks to the torture they have put that person through, that person now is needing MORE care than they needed before. Costing the taxpayers much more money than should have been needed. I have not seen these folks go harras someone with Cancer this way. what makes mental illness ok to be cruel and to stalk them?

RoeDapple 7 years, 1 month ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

RoeDapple 7 years, 1 month ago

Put one up on the wall for ole Roe . . .

Kathy Theis-Getto 7 years ago

I agree with you in part m3rry - the stigmas and prejudices need to go - however, when one listens to the wrong people and uses the wrong venue to try and change some of those prejudices, guess who comes out with the short end of the stick? I remember a person a while back who wanted to blog on this very forum. She was encouraged by the wrong folks - ones who did not have her best interest in mind and she was not treated very kindly. A few people gave her some sound advice that she ignored and then blamed her frustrations and her need for more mental help on those that posted on her blogs. I hope therapy and possibly medication has helped this person understand she made some bad choices and the blame can't be placed on others.

MagisterTempli 7 years, 1 month ago

The author touches on the unfortunate link between mental illness and violence in both the press as well as the public's perception, but does not provide any stats, so I will. The mentally ill are only about one-quarter to one-third as violent as the general population. Some mentally ill persons are violent, of course, but it isn't the huge social problem that some might imagine. What IS a big problem is how often these people become VICTIMS of truly hideous violent crimes. One only need to take a stroll down Massachussetts at any hour of night or day to see for oneself how this vulnerable population is being almost universally ignored. In addition to the disservice to those who need help that they aren't receiving, letting situations like this go adds to the general chaos in an area. Real criminals love to blend in with this chaos in the not-so-mistaken belief that they will likely be ignored too. Everybody from Jack Kennedy to the Supreme Court has worked hard to make sure that citizens cannot be taken in for treatment by force unless certain conditions are met and certain safeguards are respected, but we still could reach a lot more people than we are currently. These safeguards are important, and we can do much better for the mentally ill without breaking any of these laws. One condition that makes it legal to compel treatment is if the person is a threat to himself and/or others, so in the case of the homeless, in principle they could be "invited" to come in for an evaluation every time the temperature drops to seven below, as it did a week or so ago. That this isn't being done each and every time it's legally permissable can only be attributable to the appalling lack of funding of which Mr. Simons complains, and the stigma that these folks carry. For shame!

pace 7 years ago

Thank you for the letter, it is so easy when some one is troubled or when a family member or friend is troubled to say, you need to get help. I wish it was possible. Breaks and periods of depression attack like storms and we are getting rid of our storm shelters.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.