Johnson County Kicks Off National Effort to Help Mentally Ill

May 5, 2015

By Roxie Hammill
The Kansas City Star

An extra rider has been going to police calls in Olathe and Overland Park the past couple of years. Instead of a holstered gun or Taser, this rider carries a clipboard and a background in how to deal with mentally ill patients in crisis. When the patient loses control, this person is right there to give professional advice on how it should be handled.

It’s called the co-responder program. It’s only a couple of years old, but has gotten good results, county officials say. Today that program was one example of local efforts that brought Johnson County into the national spotlight for innovations in getting treatment, rather than jail time, for the mentally ill.

Johnson County was one of four sites hosting the kickoff of the national “Stepping Up” initiative to reduce the number of mentally ill persons in jails. The other three were to be in Washington D.C., Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Sacramento, Calif.

The initiative calls on local governments to look at their existing resources for the mentally ill and develop policies that could reduce incarceration. The effort will conclude with a national summit next year, with the possibility of federal and private grants for selected areas. The initiative focuses on counties and is sponsored by the National Association of Counties, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Foundation.

For years, mental illness and jail time have seemingly gone hand-in-hand through a common scenario: A person becomes mentally ill, refuses or can’t get treatment, creates a public disturbance and ends up in custody. That person’s jail time does only temporary good, because whatever treatment was given in jail ends after the person is released and the person often ends up in jail again. And it costs the county money.

Counties spend two to three times more on adults who are jailed with a mental illness, Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said earlier as the county commission approved a resolution in support of the initiative. They stay longer and are at a higher risk of returning to jail, he said.

Sheriff Frank Denning said about 20 percent of the people incarcerated in the county are diagnosed with mental illness. “For the last three or four decades I’ve been running the largest mental health hospital in the state of Kansas,” he said.

“When people are in crisis, when their lives are stormy and we have no resources available to law enforcement, they seek a port in the storm and that is jail,” he said.

However, resources such as the co-responder program and the re-opened Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Wyandotte County show promise, Denning said. “This is working. We have a lot more to do yet,” he said.

“It seems to me that when we are all adjusting our budgets one of the first places to take a hit is mental health,” he said. “We’ve got to turn this around.”

Eilert called the co-responder program “very, very effective,” saying it has substantially reduced the number of mentally ill who are jailed.

Johnson County has been looking at ways to reduce the mentally ill population in its jails since at least 2009, when officials from the mental health community, courts, county and law enforcement offices looked for ways to divert mentally ill from jails. Since then, crisis intervention training has been a key component for law enforcement officials. The co-responder programs were implemented so a mental health professional could provide immediate assessment and advice on the best course of action.

The county also has a mobile crisis response team 24 hours a day, a crisis staff during business hours and an after-hours call center at its mental health center sites. The launch event was held at the Crisis Recovery Center, which is a 10-bed residential facility in Shawnee.

Speakers stressed the pervasiveness of mental illness with some personal stories. Howard Snyder, long-time advocate for families with mental illness and former member of the county mental health advisory board, said services have come a long way since his son, Howard, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 19 in 1978.

His son had been a bright boy, named top freshman in the University of Arizona School of Geology, Snyder said. But once he got sick, he had to quit school.

Because of vaguely worded laws on commitment, it took 10 years before the Snyders could get him treatment, and most of that time his son was on the street, said Snyder, of Leawood. His son died in 2005 of unrelated health issues.

The county has come a long way since Snyder first joined the mental health board in 1982, he said. At that time, the budget for mental illness was around $80,000 he said, but by the time he retired from the board in 2011, it had grown to $30 million.

Sheriff Denning also told of his family experience with mental illness. His brother, Lee, once a registered nurse, spent 10 years on the streets of Dallas, refusing help for his alcohol and pharmaceutical addictions, Denning said. He never got the help he needed and killed himself almost exactly two years ago, he said.

“It’s a personal note, but it’s personal for a lot of people,” he said. “Mental illness touches each and every one of us. It’s similar to cancer.”

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