Kansas faces mental health crisis for kids suffering from COVID-19 pandemic, anti-LGBTQ legislation

Kansas lacks adequate mental health resources for teenagers

By: - June 9, 2023 9:24 am
A participant in the March 31, 2023, March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy at the Kansas Statehouse holds a sign that reads: "Make no mistake, they are killing us."

A participant in the March 31, 2023, March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy at the Kansas Statehouse holds a sign that reads: “Make no mistake, they are killing us.” The demonstration was a response to legislative attacks on the LGBTQ community, including the ban on transgender athletes. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas mental health needs are at a crisis point, especially for teenagers, and increased funding could help the state move forward. 

Kimberly O’Connor-Soule, senior vice president for Camber Children’s Mental Health, said Kansas teens and youths were already struggling before the pandemic, and school shutdowns exacerbated the problem with isolation.

“We’re living in a society that’s never been more connected in some ways, because of social media, but more disconnected in other ways,” O’Connor-Soule said. “That can create isolation and challenges with relationships.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 800-273 8255.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

In Kansas particularly, mental health needs outstrip mental health resources, with a shortage of health care workers and mental health beds. The state currently has an estimated 954 mental health beds, an increase from the previous four years, but not enough to meet demand. A 2023 Mental Health America report ranked Kansas last in terms of meeting overall mental health needs, with low access to care and a prevalence of mental health conditions among Kansans of all ages.

Child suicide attempts in Kansas led to a 68% increase in emergency department visits between 2019 to 2021, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment statistics. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%, according to the World Health Organization, with women and youths experiencing the greatest mental health effects.

Teenagers in the LGBTQ community also experienced a heightened risk of harm. Fifty-two percent of LGBTQ high schoolers reported poor mental health, and 45% of these youths seriously considered suicide, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on youth risk in 2021.  

Meredithe McNamara, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Yale University, said the mental health of transgender youths in particular has been negatively affected nationally by a wave of restrictions, such as transgender student athlete bans and bathroom bans.

In Kansas, Senate Bill 180, labeled a “women’s bill of rights,” became law. Despite its name, the legislation targets the trans community.

The state also passed a transgender student athlete ban into law in April, after lawmakers were able to scrape up enough votes to override the governor’s veto.

“These bans are discretely harmful,” McNamara said. “They threaten the mental health and well being of youth everywhere.”

McNamara said debate on these issues often took attention away from a larger conversation on mental health resources.

“The past three years were really hard, and things are getting better,” McNamara said. “But I think it doesn’t help that we don’t have enough mental health resources to support youth of all ages. The amount of resources that go into advancing these bans, whether it’s sports, bathrooms, school expression, medical care, the resources are astronomical, both in time and money.”

While the Legislature has focused debate on transgender rights in recent months, the state has begun to work toward closing the mental health care gap, with Gov. Laura Kelly prioritizing behavioral health funding. In May, the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services distributed $37.7 million from the state’s federal COVID-19 recovery funding to add 122 mental health beds in Sedgwick County and Olathe.

A lack of psychiatric beds has been one of the largest barriers to providing mental health care in our state,” Kelly said.

In Olathe, KVC Health Systems has received $12.7 million to build a 72-bed psychiatric hospital operated by Camber. O’Connor-Soule said the hospital would help address needs for Kansas youths.

“Our hope is that this hospital will help fill some of the gaps and meet some of the community needs so that adults and children can come in at a time of crisis, get the care and treatment that they need, get support in a state-of-the-art healing environment and then be able to return to their communities with coping skills and aftercare plans that allow them to remain successful,” O’Connor-Soule said.

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.