Mental health, staffing concerns focus of Lt. Gov. Colyer’s meeting with Pawnee

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Jeff Colyer, lieutenant governor of Kansas and plastic surgeon, toured Pawnee Mental Health Services on a listening tour Thursday morning in Manhattan.

During the visit, staff members shared with Colyer the challenges Pawnee faces in providing mental health and substance treatment services to ten counties in the north central region of Kansas.

The major problems plaguing Pawnee and other similar community mental health centers in the state are difficulties with professional recruitment and tight budgets.

“Recruitment of specialty areas, especially like psychiatry, anywhere outside the metro area is difficult and challenging,” Karen Smothers, assistant clinical director of Pawnee, said.

Robbin Cole, executive director of Pawnee, said the mental health center relies on recruiting clinical and psychiatric personnel with personal ties to communities, but those connections are difficult to find in more rural areas. Even then, community mental heath centers like Pawnee lose out on recruits due to employers.

“It waxes and wanes, but there are periods of time where we’ve lost numbers of employees to Fort Riley because Fort Riley was able to offer what they viewed as a better opportunity than what they had here,” Cole said. “Part of it, too, is our wages and our salaries. We absolutely cannot compete with Fort Riley. We cannot compete with private practitioners.”

The recruitment issue is compounded by Governor Sam Brownback’s plans to add hundreds of counselors, social workers and psychiatrists to the public school system in the coming years.

“Where are they going to come from?” Cole said. “Might they come from the community mental health system? Because even the schools are in a better position when it comes to wages and salaries than the mental health centers are.”

Other staff members echoed Cole’s concerns.

“We’re all reaping the same pool,” said Adam McCaffrey, therapy and recovery services director at Pawnee. “We’re just all recruiting against each other, but we’re trying to do the same job, essentially, to help the people of Kansas.”

Despite staff shortages, Pawnee continues to offer support and service to people across Riley, Geary, Clay, Cloud and other, more remote and rural counties using “tele-psychiatry,” or teleconferences.

Additionally, Pawnee plans to integrate care services using community care teams to treat patients who require multidisciplinary treatment.

“These community care teams will pull together representatives from a variety of organizations in the community, staff those individual cases and take a look at how services from a variety of different providers can be wrapped around that individual to try to reduce their utilization of the services while also enhancing the impact or benefit they seek from the utilization of those services,” Cole said.

After hearing from the Pawnee staff, Colyer ended the conversation by expressing appreciation for the work done by Pawnee. As a plastic surgeon who specialized in cranio-facial surgery, Colyer said he knows the reality of interacting with patients who feel suicidal.

“I want to thank you for what you do,” Colyer said. “It’s important. It hits me. I know it.”

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Hey, hi, hello! I’m Rachel Hogan, the copy chief for The Collegian. I’m a senior in journalism from Olathe, Kansas. When I’m not at work in the newsroom, I like to spend my time cuddling with my dog, working as a barista and laughing with my friends.