‘This is Katie’s way’: Turning a family tragedy into a path toward better mental health care

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Katie's Way is inside a 100-year-old limestone house. (Photo courtesy of Katie's Way)

In 2014, Jeff Mathis, owner of Mathis Rehab Centers, reached out to Dr. Matt Wassom about starting a team-based outpatient clinic in Manhattan after experiencing one of the greatest tragedies imaginable.

“[Mathis’] vision to do so was in response to the loss of his daughter, Katie, to suicide after a long struggle with depression and anxiety throughout her childhood and teenage years,” Wassom, clinical psychologist and clinical director of Katie’s Way, said.

Katie was a 21-year-old student on a full-ride scholarship at the University of Kansas. She died by suicide in 2013.

Mathis said when Katie was growing up, he didn’t feel like he could find any effective help for her, in part of because the stigma surrounding mental health.

“I just decided that the world of psychology and psychiatry had plenty of room for improvement,” Mathis said. “I just thought, ‘There’s got to be a way to do this better.’”

After Katie died, Mathis wanted to create a place where patients did not feel afraid or embarrassed to go.

“I just sort of developed the idea of Katie’s Way thinking that if we offered team-based care and we did it in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re a sicko,” Mathis said. “Just a nice, easy, friendly place where multiple disciplines and people can work together and surround themselves around a patient, I thought maybe that would work better, as we were unable to find anything like that.”

Ultimately, Mathis opened the facility because he didn’t want his daughter’s life to be in vain.

“I wanted to do something that honors my daughter, so that her life wasn’t just for nothing, and the ideas of what I think would have saved her, would’ve been the way I wish it could’ve gotten done,” Mathis said. “And so, it just kind of came to me, ‘What if we had done this in a better way?’ And I settled on, ‘This is Katie’s way.’”

Opening up

Mathis, now the owner and managing director of Katie’s Way, was not a mental health provider, and Wassom had no experience with healthcare business operations when the ball started rolling.

“[Mathis’] expertise with being a healthcare business owner, and then bringing on people that are in behavioral and mental health to figure out how we wanted to do our clinic,” Wassom said. “It was definitely a joint effort.”

Wassom understood that Mathis wanted to do something different for the community in regards to mental health, and since he saw patients from this area when he worked at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City, Missouri, he knew there was a need.

On March 16, 2015, Katie’s Way opened with a staff consisting of Wassom, a part-time psychiatric nurse practitioner and a part-time child psychiatrist.

“We were pretty overwhelmed with the need that first year, so we had to rapidly grow,” Wassom said. “Now, we’re up to three psychiatry providers, three clinical psychologists, three clinical social workers and one marriage and family therapist.”

Katie’s Way focuses on two forms of treatment: psychotherapy and medication management.

“Those two treatments definitely complement each other quite well because a lot of times our therapists are kind of helping the psychiatrists out with monitoring improvement and monitoring symptoms and side effects and things like that,” Wassom said.

Nathan Lenz, the licensed marriage and family therapist, said his days mainly consist of one thing.

“Being a therapist, people call it a lot of different things, counseling, therapy, psychotherapy, whatever,” Lenz said. “My days are primarily just sitting down with people and doing therapy. Talking through issues, working through things.”

Lenz said that he usually tells clients on their first session the goal is to work him out of a job, and that one of the coolest parts of his job is watching someone end up running their last sessions by themselves.

“It doesn’t mean that you’re always going to be happy, it doesn’t mean that life is always going to be good, because I can’t control that,” Lenz said. “What I can do is help people build skills and mindsets that help them to be more resilient, and just really face what life throws at them.”

Katie’s Way provides only serves people between the ages of two and 26. At the time, Wassom said, there just isn’t enough people on the team to support the needs of the adult population.

“We’re specialty trained providers for child and adolescent,” Wassom said. “We want to mostly focus on what we’re specialized for, and rely on other folks in the community that do psychotherapy for adults to do what they’re good at, to do what they’re used to doing.”

What makes Katie’s Way different?

Since its founding, Wassom said there are four aspects the facility focuses on to be different, including team-based care. At Katie’s Way, a therapist and medical provider will be working together.

“We have our providers in the same facility using the same medical record, sharing treatment plans with each other seamlessly, and at times even seeing patients at the same time,” he said.

Another is the environment. The facility is inside is inside a 100-year-old, limestone house. Wassom said that it’s not supposed to feel like a doctor’s office with chairs lined up in a waiting room, but is still a state-of-the-art caring facility.

The "living room" in Katie&squot;s Way. (Photo courtesy of Katie&squot;s Way)
The "living room" in Katie's Way. (Photo courtesy of Katie's Way)

The third is using evidence-based, research-based treatments, Wassom said.

The final aspect is patient-centered care.

“Just really trying to talk openly with the patients, the adults or the family systems about how they feel coming, what’s working, what’s not working,” Wassom said. “Trying to adapt what to do to each individual kid or adult we see in our facility.”

Addressing misconceptions, stigmas

Dr. Nick Evangelidis, child and adolescent psychiatrist, said one of the big draws to working in this field is helping families and parents be educated on misconceptions about mental health.

“I think one of the most important things is letting families know that you don’t have to have severe or even moderate symptoms to get treatment and to benefit from treatment,” Evangelidis said. “If you’re able to get treatment early on with milder symptoms, then you’re going to have better outcomes.”

Evangelidis said sometimes people see medication as something only for worst-case scenarios.

“I think that a lot of people feel like medications are a last resort,” Evangelidis said. “I hear that all the time, and that definitely should not be the case. Medication should not be the last resort. It should be an option to be considered when it’s necessary and indicated.”

Another misconception he hears is that people are going to be on medications forever.

“The goal is to be able to work in therapy and as the brain matures and develops, and the goal is going to be to be able to come off of these medications and have your symptoms improved to the point where we don’t need medication anymore,” Evangelidis said.

Katie’s Way and COVID-19

With the spread of COVID-19, Katie’s Way was forced to make the switch to telehealth services, which Wassom said is working pretty well.

“We switched all of our psychiatry, medical medication appointments and our therapy appointments to telehealth,” Wassom said.

Patients receiving transcranial magnetic stimulation treatments are still seen in the clinic.

Mathis emphasized that they are still here to help, even now in these hard, strange times.

Going forward

Wassom said one of the things he has valued most since the beginning of Katie’s Way is the support from the community.

“If you can create people that value what you do, and they’re not afraid to talk about what we do in a positive way with others, then it really helps us break down the barriers and kind of that old stigma about coming to get mental health care,” Wassom said.

Although the facility started after a tragedy, Lenz said they’ve been able to do good in Manhattan.

“What started in tragedy I think has been a really good thing for the community and for the people that we get to serve every week,” Lenz said. “I have the opportunity to step into somebody’s life and build a really strong bond and really build a really close connection that really can help them change the trajectory of their life.”

Now, Katie’s Way has between 2,500 to 3,000 visits a month, Mathis said.

“If I hadn’t done it, I don’t even know if I’d be alive myself,” he said. “It gave me a reason to live, and a reason to go on, and to help others.”

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I'm Pete Loganbill and I'm the News Editor for the Collegian and host of the Collegian Kultivate podcast! I spent two years at Johnson County Community College, and I am now a senior in Public Relations at K-State. I believe constant communication leads to progress, no matter how difficult a comment may be for me or anyone to hear. Contact me at ploganbill@kstatecollegian.com.