Kansas mental health crisis exacerbated by rising stress, worker pay disparity

Rep. Brenda Landwehr says having people dedicated to addressing mental health is helping the state deal with a crisis exacerbated by COVID-19. (Sept. 28 file photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The leading legislator on a committee charged with analyzing the state’s behavioral health system says the mental health crisis in Kansas has become more apparent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the state, mental health workers are underpaid, stress levels are rising and Kansans are struggling to access the care they require.

Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican and chairwoman of the committee, said Monday a lack of attention hurt the state’s mental health services. She said simply having more eyes on the issue is a significant step forward.

“I think we have been in a crisis for quite a while, so it has been nice that we finally have people that have given mental health the attention that it deserves,” Landwehr said. “Solutions need to start with the basics, and then we figure out how we get to the bells and whistles. We’ve got a lot of good people across the state and involved in this committee to kind of help us get there.”

Legislators on the Special Committee on Mental Health Modernization and Reform discussed their vision for an ideal behavioral health system in Kansas — one free of disparities within the state and between Kansas and its neighbors.

The committee was created earlier this year after the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in business closures, rising unemployment and created other added stressors for Kansans.

As of Sept. 14, an estimated 32.5% of Kansans are experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.

The same survey shows 31.1% of Kansans did not get the care needed or had their care delayed amid the pandemic.

Legislators heard from several working groups to inform their discussion and vision of a modernized Kansas mental health system. One issue identified by these groups was disparities in resources and pay within the state’s urban and rural areas.

Will Warnes, director of behavioral health at the Sunflower Health Plan and a member of the committee working group on finance and sustainability, said his group found a lack of mental health providers in rural and frontier areas of the state.

Sen. Mary Jo Taylor, a Stafford Republican, said the state hospital in her district has an immense difficulty recruiting and retaining staff members. Larned State Hospital, the largest psychiatric facility in the state, serves the western two-thirds of Kansas, but even its psychiatrist commutes from Kansas City periodically.

“Some might think we should move the facility from Larned to someplace else that has more people, more amenities, but that employs over 3,000 people — 21 counties — in this part of the state,” Taylor said. “It is important that we keep that a viable option.”

While getting boots on the ground was the top priority for rural legislators, Rep. Adam Smith, a Weskan Republican, said that may not be possible amid the pandemic.

“I agree it’s nice to be able to have some very highly skilled resources within your community, but we always understand that it’s not feasible,” Smith said. “So, in our communities, a lot of times that has to do with mental health services, and having someone available via telehealth is better than nothing at all.”

Working groups also found significant pay disparities between mental health professionals in Kansas and those in neighboring states.

Missouri and Oklahoma have statewide initiatives as part of the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics program, which offers higher reimbursement for services provided. That leads to higher salaries being offered, Warnes said.

CCBHC describes itself as an “integrated and sustainably-financed model for care delivery,” focused on ensuring access to evidence-based mental health services. Mental health providers are subject to stringent timeliness and quality criteria and receive additional funding through the program to support the costs of expanding services to meet the needs of their communities.

Kansas does not have a statewide initiative.

Greg Hennen, executive director of Four County Mental Health Center in Fredonia, said his facility employs workers who have just graduated from high school to help in summer programs and increase recruitment and retention. He said despite that recruitment process, the mental health center continues to lose employees.

Just last week, the center lost another therapist to Oklahoma and the CCBHC system, Hennen said.

“I now have eight therapist openings,” Hennen said. “We are a group that trains our own, and I can’t hold on to them, so being fully resourced is critical for us being successful.”

The committee is meeting throughout the year to prepare recommendations for mental health reform in Kansas.

Sen. Larry Alley, a Winfield Republican, pointed to five studies on mental health in Kansas done within the past few years and addressed the need to make those recommendations successful.

“It seems we do these studies every year, but we are not getting an update on if we are making any progress,” Allen said. “Just having studies done doesn’t solve the problems. We need to have some measurement of success for these new recommendations we put out.”