Megan Smith thought suicide was the only thing that could give her inner peace.
But since she got good grades and always showed up to class, her teachers at Lawrence’s Central Middle School assumed she was simply a perfectionist. That’s when a social worker with the Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities program, or WRAP, recognized there was more to what Smith was going through, and got her into Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to be treated for depression.
That option is no longer available for all students in Lawrence public schools, ever since WRAP became a victim of budget cuts a few years ago. Bert Nash officials are still working to get the program — or some form of it — back into the entire school district. They say WRAP helps reduce violence, suicides and bullying by identifying — and treating — people with mental illnesses at an early age.
At one time, WRAP had a social worker in every school in the Lawrence district. But that changed in 2008, when the school district ($250,000) and city of Lawrence ($350,000) discontinued their funding, causing WRAP to cut 11 positions; only the county ($225,000) has kept funding it year in and year out. The program is now down to the two high schools and two of the four junior highs (Liberty Memorial Central and South).
“At the county, we see the consequences of not addressing things like mental health earlier in life — our involvement with the courts and Douglas County corrections — and the importance of working at the preventive level rather than the treatment level,” said County Commissioner Mike Gaughan.
In Kansas, while about 19,000 students between 12 and 17 have a major depressive episode each year, only about 38 percent receive treatment for it, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Mental illnesses are such a factor in youth, but the younger you are the less likely you are to get treatment,” said Bert Nash CEO David Johnson. “It really is a shame if we have to wait until our prisons are filling up with people who are mentally ill, people on the streets who are mentally ill. It’s too bad we can’t really have a focus on children, when we can maybe prevent it or intervene.”
Bert Nash is now admitting about 25 percent fewer students than it did when WRAP was in all the Lawrence public schools, Johnson added.
“The school district is interested in perhaps a broader conversation about how to provide mental health to kiddos, not necessarily just the WRAP program,” said Rick Doll, superintendent of the Lawrence school district, adding that tackling mental health is the responsibility not just of the school district but the community as a whole. “We’re engaged with Bert Nash in conversations about what that could look like.”
WRAP has been in the Eudora school district for the past six years, under a federal grant. Officials credit the program with helping reduce the number of students who come to school under the influence of drugs or alcohol or armed with a handgun. But with that federal grant set to expire, Eudora schools superintendent Don Grosdidier said he doesn’t expect the program to continue unless another agency steps up to fund it.
Smith, now 25 and living in Lecompton, can’t imagine what her life would be like had the WRAP program not been at Central Middle School when she was a student there.
Through therapy and medications, which she’s now off, Smith has become a productive adult. Recently, she graduated from a local community college, where she received straight As. She provided the sound engineering, her hopeful career field, for a Kansas City performance by famous cabaret singer Marilyn Maye. And, not least of all, she and her husband welcomed their first child to the world.
‘”It was all because of the support and help that I was able to get where I am today,” Smith said, as she fed 4-month-old Liam on a recent day at a Lawrence coffee shop. “I think the world would be a different place if we had more of that kind of support out there, that kind of help.”