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Documentary casts light on Kansas City’s mental health care woes

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The state of Kansas City’s mental health care services is dire, according to a forthcoming new documentary.

Journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Price’s Lost Minds: KC’s Mental Health Crisis focuses on the growing number of fraught confrontations between severely mentally ill people and police on Kansas City’s streets. The locally produced documentary airs Wednesday, Oct. 1, at 8 p.m. on KCPT.

Currently, there are five professional mental health liaisons in Kansas City, Mo., who ride along with KCPD officers once a month to visit with mentally ill Kansas Citians  — residents who could pose a danger to themselves and others.

In an interview with Up to Date‘s Steve Kraske, Price said the liaisons are currently dealing with nearly three times the number of cases they would ordinarily oversee. And that means they aren’t getting enough time to help sick individuals who need their attention most.

“They’re being asked to swim against a tsunami,” Price said. “In the 10 months up to last July, KCPD Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) officers and liaisons dealt with nearly 60 incidents where a mentally ill person was in crisis and armed with a weapon.”

Though liaisons are overwhelmed, KCPD officers have been receiving CIT training to learn how to de-escalate confrontations with mentally ill individuals.

“Rather than rolling out of their cop cars with guns pulled, CIT trained officers try to talk people down,” Price said. “Unfortunately, only 15 percent of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. offer this kind of training.”

One of the biggest obstacles to improving mental health care both statewide and in Kansas City is funding. Missouri state Sen. Kiki Curls, who sits on the Senate’s appropriations committee, told Up to Date that politics often comes into play when dealing with funding mental health care.

“I think everyone recognizes that this is a critical issue,” Curls said. “But even this year, there was money that was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, and specifically a project here in Kansas City to create a crisis stabilization center.”

Missouri Department of Mental Health Director Dr. Keith Schafer agreed that more funding is needed for mental health services. Schafer told Up to Date that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which the Missouri legislature has not done, would help extend care to many more sick individuals.

“If we would expand Medicaid in this state, 300,000 people would get benefits, and 50,000 of those people need mental health or substance abuse help,” Schafer said. “It is the greatest issue in the state of Missouri, in terms of resources [for mental health care].”

While Price agreed that Medicaid expansion would greatly help, he said the situation on the streets requires more immediate action and could be done for much less money.

“For each liaison to go out twice a week with a police escort would cost $20,000 a year,” Price said. “Relatively speaking, that’s peanuts [compared to Medicaid expansion].”

Here are some facts and figures from the Lost Minds team and KCPT:

  • There are an estimated 94,478 cases of untreated serious mental illness in the Kansas City metro.
  • 22 percent of Jackson County’s homeless population has a serious mental illness.
  • There have been 1,939 referrals to mental health professionals in Jackson, Clay, Platte and Ray counties.
  • There are 5 liaisons available to serve those referred individuals.
  • Untreated mental illness costs Kansas City $624 million annually.

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