Rafi Bright loves science. He loves learning about animals and vertebras, he is very good at remembering names, and one day he'd like to be a professional wrestler. But Rafi is not an average 17-year-old boy.
"He doesn't have friends a 17-year-old would have. He doesn't understand at the same level," said Diana Bright, his mother.
When Rafi was five, doctors diagnosed him with autism. Later, he was diagnosed with anxiety, bipolar disorder and developmental delays. As he got older, his lifelong battle with mental illness became more prevalent. He started to run away, raise his voice, get angry and make threats.
Rafi's first encounter with police was when he was just six years old.
"I remember the officer had said, 'Well, they will just treat him like any other mental problem and throw him in jail.' And I thought 'oh my god, he was six years old at the time.' I was really, really worried that was his future," said Diana.
Johnson County's co-responder program
A few years ago, Johnson County implemented its co-responder program, an initiative to help those suffering from mental illness.
The co-responder program allows cities to hire a mental health professional to accompany police officers on calls that involve mental health situations. The goal is to provide individuals who have mental illnesses with quicker access to services and keep them out of the emergency room or jail. If law enforcement officers respond to the scene of a call and it is determined the assistance of a co-responder is needed, the responding officer will work with the co-responder directly.
The city of Olathe was the first to partner with Johnson County Mental Health for a co-responder in 2010. The city of Overland Park shortly followed in 2013.
And that's when Rafi and Diana's lives changed dramatically.
"I was afraid to pick up the phone because you don't know what you are going to get," said Diana. "Now, the people at 911 know to send the co-responder."
Megan Younger is Overland Park's co-responder. She has helped Rafi and his mom for the past three years, and she's gotten to know them well during that time. Younger frequently stops by the house to check on the duo and recently attended Rafi's Power Ranger-themed birthday party with other Overland Park police officers.
"If some of their [people living mental illness] behaviors are caused by symptoms that can be treatable, surrounding them with support is going to be better in the long-run then having them go to jail," said Younger. "Rafi does not have a criminal mindset. He doesn't start out with the intent to do something wrong."
Cuts in funding to mental health services
Cuts in funding for mental health services have forced resources to cut back or close.
Truman Medical Center closed its behavioral health emergency room in September 2015, shifting all services to the main emergency room in the hospital. The center had served about 300,000 patients in the past six years.
Osawatomie State Hospital lost many of its beds after a significant decrease in funding. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services told the state it would no longer pay for new patients admitted to the hospital because of noncompliance with federal regulations, and a 41 Action News Investigation from January discovered a report that said the hospital “failed to provide adequate safety round checks placing all patients receiving services at risk for harm.”
This week, the Kansas City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) announced it was closing its doors at the end of the month. NAMI-KC’s interim director listed a decrease in funding as one of the reasons.
“There are real clear consequences for an underfunded or unfunded mental health system,” said Tim DeWeese the executive director of Johnson County Mental Health.
Consequences of cuts in funding
Police response times
Officers around the metro have now been put on the front lines of dealing with those with psychiatric disorders.
Lenexa’s Police Department has seen a 76 percent increase in mental health-related calls from 2014 to 2015, according to the department’s public information officer. (Although, the police department's reporting methods changed during this time.) In 2015, they received 492 calls involving mental illness.
“It’s been increasingly difficult to find methods of dealing with those things,” said officer Dan Friesen of Lenexa PD. “We just get more calls on this sort of thing.”
More calls also result in a slower response time. Lenexa Police officers logged 944.48 hours on mental health calls in 2015.
Jails have filled with mentally ill inmates who, time and time again, are arrested for minor offenses. In Johnson County, even with the co-responder program in place, 17 percent of the jail population receives a psychiatric drug.
Cost of incarceration in Johnson County
Regular inmate: $90-$100 a day
Inmate with mental illness: $140-$150 a day
“When you look at just taking someone to a jail or when you are taking someone to the emergency room, it is very much a Band-Aid approach as opposed to looking at what are the underlying issues,” said Friesen.
Johnson County Commission chairman Ed Eilert said the county has saved thousands of dollars since Olathe and Overland Park joined the co-responder program.
In 2015, he said, Overland Park police had contact with 348 individuals with a mental illness. Police only placed five of those individuals in jail. During the same time period, Olathe police had contact with more than 800 individuals suffering from mental health issues, but only placed 12 of those individuals in jail.
Cities now joining the co-responder program
Shawnee has now partnered with Lenexa to join Johnson County's co-responder program. In February, both cities approved the partnership. They will share a co-responder who will spend half the week at each police station.
"That person will have access to records and services that we just don't have access to when we are out in the field," said Friesen.
According to the Shawnee City Council, the program is estimated to cost less than $50,000 per year for the city's portion of the program.
Johnson County Mental Health is also working with other cities in the metro to expand the co-responder program.
Other cities with which Johnson County Mental Health is planing to work:
- Prairie Village
- Roeland Park
- Mission Hills
"Our communities are realizing that mental illness is not just a mental health center issues it's a community issue. And if we can find ways to work collaboratively, to provide the services people need, not only do we save dollars system-wide, we ensure that our citizens get the right level of service and the right level of care," said DeWeese.
If you, a family member or a friend are having an emergency due to mental illness, call Johnson County's Emergency Services at 913-268-0156.
Ariel Rothfield can be reached at Ariel.Rothfield@KSHB.com.