It’s too bad it took the deaths of 20 children and six adults at the hands of a gunman who reportedly had mental health problems in Connecticut to get the nation’s attention about the need for added attention to mental health services.
Nonetheless, Gov. Sam Brownback’s plans to address that challenge have the potential to make a positive impact on mental health services in Kansas.
Last week, the governor announced his plan to dedicate $10 million in mental health funds to an initiative aimed at treating the state’s most at-risk cases. His idea is to create regional networks to provide services to those in need of intensive mental health care. He also plans to establish a new task force that includes representatives from mental health, medical and criminal justice fields to evaluate the state’s current mental health system and make recommendations.
Mental health professionals are cautiously optimistic about the plan but are waiting to learn more details. It’s important to note that the governor is not talking about adding $10 million to the state’s mental health budget; he plans to take $10 million that now is funding other services and dedicate it to his new mission. So even if that money is put to good use, it is being taken away from other good uses within the mental health budget. As David Johnson, chief executive officer of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, noted, it will be important “to make sure we are not dropping the ball someplace else.”
Johnson’s concern is understandable. In the last four to five years, he has watched Bert Nash lose $1.4 million in funding and 25 staff positions. One of the challenges of any program the governor proposes will be to make sure money continues to fund services and not an increased mental health bureaucracy in the state. The task force, and the members Brownback chooses for that task force, will be key. Appointing a task force doesn’t accomplish much unless the recommendations of those experts are implemented and, if necessary, funded with additional state resources.
The governor and many state legislators are particularly concerned these days about simply throwing money at problems that need to be solved. However, there are times when increased funding is important and justified to address critical needs. Providing mental health services to people who pose a threat to themselves or others — or to people who will otherwise fill our jails because there is no other help available to them — may qualify as just such a critical need.