Like so many Americans, news of the Connecticut massacre stopped me in my tracks. As the body count of first graders increased that day, I called my wife to tell her I left work early. Then I picked up my daughter from daycare so I could hold her tight and count my blessings.
As we mourn the horrific loss of life in Newtown, it is time to face that America has a problem. The debate on how to move forward is already underway in Washington, but Kansas lawmakers have a responsibility to take action as well.
In Kansas, Community Mental Health Centers (CMCHs) provide mental health care to over 123,000 people, regardless of ability to pay. Thirty-five percent of CMCH patients are age 20 or younger. More than half of their patients are uninsured.
CMCHs are particularly important during economic downturns. Statistics prove that unemployed people are much more likely to suffer from mental illness. Ninety percent of Kansas’ CMCHs reported increased demand in recent years, with an overall patient increase of 18% since 2007.
Unfortunately, the Kansas Legislature failed these individuals at their most vulnerable moment. According to a study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Kansas has made the 9th highest level of cuts to mental health funding of all 50 states and the District of Columbia since the recession began. Reduced services include 24-hour emergency care, medicine for those on the verge of a breakdown, and resources specifically geared toward mentally ill children. Many programs have been slashed by more than half what their funding was before the economy crashed.
Some of these cuts were made out of dire necessity at the height of the recession. However, with the economy on the uptick, 2013 should be the time we start to rebuild the mental health safety net. Sadly, mentally ill Kansans are more at risk than ever. New tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations have put Kansas on a collision course with bankruptcy. Even after all the severe cuts that have been made to mental health services in the last five years, more cuts are on the way.
The Kansas budget is a statement of our values. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, we should reflect on what is most important to our families and communities. Kansas faces bankruptcy because the priorities of elected officials in Topeka went astray. Too many politicians felt that tax cuts for the wealthiest among us were more important than services for our most vulnerable citizens...including the mentally ill.
We must not place a stigma of violence on those who suffer from mental illness, but it is essential to recognize the danger, cost, and inhumanness of letting any mentally ill person go untreated. When ignored, many end up in the corrections system, homeless, in emergency rooms, institutionalized, or committing unthinkable acts of violence. Properly treated or not, the Kansas taxpayer picks up the tab. Given that, shouldn’t we choose the path that makes our communities healthier, happier, and safer?
I’m willing to bet that no one in Newtown, Connecticut gave a moment’s thought about their tax rates on December 14th. Aside from grief, the only thing anyone likely pondered was the horrible question: what more could we have done to prevent this tragedy?
I don’t ever want to be forced to ask that question of myself or my colleagues in the Kansas Legislature.
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