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Leaders from Kansas’ three branches of government unite to address mental health crisis

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TOPEKA — Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert spoke on Wednesday about her first week as a district court judge 30 years ago and her interaction with a man already well known to courthouse colleagues .

The man, whom she called ET, was not violent at the time, but regularly stopped taking medication, became unstable, met with law enforcement officers and returned to court. ET would be held in jail, placed on drug therapy, regained stability, and released into the community. In a few weeks or months, Luckert said, ET would start the cycle all over again. This treadmill of life was serving neither his interests nor those of the Topekans.

Luckert told hundreds of people gathered for a two-day conference on mental illness that she had recently come across a handwritten petition filed with the Supreme Court. She recognized the unique calligraphy. It was in the hand of ET. Decades after they first met, ET had yet to break free from the yoke.

“I look back on that and think we could have done better,” the chief judge said. “We had to do better. Not just for ET, but for thousands of Kansans like him. Our prisons and detention centers across the country are the largest providers of mental health services. How to break this cycle? »

The 2022 Kansas Mental Health Summit, the first of its kind in Kansas, brought together more than 600 registrants in person and online. The list included judges, legislators, lawyers, court service officers, community corrections officers and executive branch officials, mental and medical health disciplines, law enforcement and first responders.

The rally also featured brief remarks from Governor Laura Kelly, Senate Speaker Ty Masterson and House Speaker Ron Ryckman.

Ice on power lines

Ryckman, a Republican from Olathe, said the summit could be a catalyst for change. He said collaborating and examining alternatives should push the boundaries. He gave an example of original thinking that at first seemed silly. In the Pacific Northwest, he said, the problem of ice on power lines has plagued consumers for years. Individual solutions failed, Ryckman said, so a meeting was called. No idea would be discarded.

Someone has suggested that the bears be trained to climb the poles, perhaps enticed by a honeypot at the top, so that the movement of the large animals would break through the ice hanging from the power lines. Another person recommended using helicopters to drop the honey on top of the poles. He said this eventually led to a plausible solution which involved flying helicopters close to the lines so that the gusts of wind from the rotor blades dislodge the ice.

“I don’t think our answers are as simple as ice on power lines and helicopters,” Ryckman said. “I know the answers are in this room and online.”

He urged attendees to ensure that the right and left hands of the mental health reform movement stay connected as strategies to keep people with mental illness out of prisons are considered, developed and implemented. .

Kelly, a state senator before she was elected governor in 2018, worked after high school at a New York City camp for troubled teens and after college at an Illinois minimum-security facility for boys. After grad school, she took a job working with seriously mentally ill youth at Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center in New York City.

“These experiences have really opened my eyes,” Kelly said. “They taught me that a successful response to the mental health crisis required a collective approach over a long period of time.”

She said Kansas has made progress in recent years, but more needs to be done in terms of expanding mental health services to Kansans from childhood through adulthood and in urban and rural areas. of State. The criminal justice system is not equipped to provide services that should come from a comprehensive system designed for people with mental illness, she said.

“For too long,” the governor said, “people with mental illness have been stigmatized and considered incurable. The reality is quite the opposite. The vast majority of people with mental illness are highly treatable. It’s the compassionate, humane thing to do to get them the help they need.

Hands-on-deck moment

Masterson, the Andover Senate GOP chairman, said he couldn’t remember another time the state’s three branches of government had worked together on a vexing societal challenge.

“It shows you the importance. In a way, everyone is on deck,” he told conference attendees. “You see this problem, many of you, live and in person. In living color. First hand. First responders. Health care workers. The justice system sees it in the courts.

Masterson urged those who pledge to work to improve the mental health of Kansans not to limit themselves to provincial ideas or focus only on suggestions related to spending more taxpayers’ money. He said financial investments were part of the answer, he said, but not the end at all.

“I feel like we’re compounding the problem on many fronts in our society – in this post-modern society where we often reject faith, reject the healthiest versions of family. We have dozens of fatherless children. We go on social media and … push people into complacency over societal interests,” Masterson said.

The idea for a statewide summit emerged when District Court Judge Robert Wonnell attended a similar regional meeting three years ago in Deadwood, South Dakota. This summit was the work of a national task force involving the National Center for State Courts, the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators and the State Justice Institute.

“I have to ask myself what am I doing as a judge, in my court and in partnership with other professionals in my community, to ensure that our justice system addresses issues as early in the process as possible and reduces finally the recurrence? Improving this system not only benefits the individual mental disease, but ultimately every Kansan,” he said.