Kansas suicide rate increases by more than 30 percent; funding for mental health centers decreases


According to a report released last month by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the state of Kansas saw the number of suicide related deaths increase from 384 in 2011 to 505 in 2012, a jump of 31.5 percent. The suicide rate is nearly five times that of the 2012 homicide rate from the same report.

Suicide was shown to be the second leading cause of death for Kansans within the age groups of 15-24 and 25-44 years of age. Nearly 82 percent of suicide deaths were male. Riley County reported 9 suicides last year.

The report comes during a period when funding has been reduced for community centers in Kansas. Sheli Sweeney, advocacy and member services coordinator for the Association of Community Mental Health Centers of Kansas, said the cuts have affected the 27 centers that operate in the state.

“We’re being asked to cut back and we serve more and more people every year,” Sweeney said. “Last year, our centers served almost 127,000 people statewide. I don’t have numbers for this year, but it’s expected to grow.”

Community health centers are required to treat all Kansans, regardless of whether or not they can pay for the services. Out of all the Kansans who used a community health center last year, 53 percent were not insured. In cases where people can not afford to pay for treatment, state and federal grants pick up the costs.

Terry Becker, crisis services director for Pawnee Mental Health Services, said that the issue of funding has been a concern for their facility. The community health center has 25 percent fewer staff than it did in 2007, despite an increase in the number of clients. According to Becker, the center handled around 7,400 cases last year.

“The cuts over the past year have certainly affected us,” Becker said. “We are continuing to provide services for a large number of people and we had to cut costs. We’ve had to do two rounds of layoffs.”

In recent years, the state has shifted from relying on large institutions and hospitals to more community center treatment programs. The change was made to avoid long term hospitalization. Although this has expanded the number of clients in community-based centers, these same facilities have seen their budgets cut by more than $52 million since 2007.

Gov. Sam Brownback proposed a new mental health initiative earlier this year that would redirect $10 million the state already spends on mental health services to create five regional “recovery centers” across Kansas. Despite the move to community-based treatment, there has been no decrease in the number of patients at the state’s three mental health hospitals, according to the governor’s budget report for 2013. Meanwhile, information provided by Sweeney’s organization shows that on average, it costs $477 per day of treatment in a state psychiatric hospital compared to $10 a day in Medicaid reimbursed community treatment.

Becker said that although she feels the governor’s initiative is a positive program, she worries about funding for the community centers.

“When the governor took $10 million and repurposed it for new programs, we have to decide, ‘What can we not do with?’” Becker said.

Pawnee Mental Health Services, which services 10 counties, reported a 13 percent decrease in suicides last year, a marked difference from the rest of the state. Becker said that her group has been proactive in treating mental illness in the community.

“We still have a lot of education to do,” Becker said. “Pawnee has been providing a mental health first aid program. It helps people recognize the signs of mental illness. We’re proud of the fact that police, teachers and even pastors have participated in the program.”

David Kearns, training director for K-State Counseling Services, said that students facing depression or thoughts of suicide are always welcome to visit with a counselor. According to the department’s annual report, nearly nine percent of first time clients identified suicidal intentions as a moderate or significant concern last year.

“Students who struggle in any way are encouraged to visit,” Kearns said. “We work around a tremendous number of [cases].”

Becker said that there are some false assumptions people may have about mental health.

“So many people do not understand a diagnosis is not a flaw,” Becker said. “This is a medical condition and very treatable.”