NewsLocal NewsYour Voice


Children's Mercy's Illuminate program seeks to address youth mental health in Kansas City region

Posted: 5:28 PM, Nov 22, 2023
Updated: 2023-12-13 09:20:25-05
Children's Mercy Illuminate program

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The word illuminate means to make something more visible by shining a light on it.

It's also the name and purpose of a new mental health campaign and commitment at Children's Mercy Hospital.

I first heard about the new plan this summer. The financial investment is a bold one — $150 million.

The more I looked into the 14 programs set to begin in the next five years, the more I felt compelled to share a series of stories highlighting some of its components.

My why is simple: more families than you may know are battling youth mental health and struggling to get access to the help they need.

I can tell you the data is unflinching, and my heart is with the parents trying to navigate a complex and often rigid system.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports one in five kids from ages 3-17 has a mental health disorder.

While a handful of facilities offer children's psychiatric hospital beds, there remains a shortage of beds in the area.

Sixty-six percent of Children's Mercy youth mental health patients are people of color.

Seventy-four percent of mental health patients are from lower median household incomes, according to U.S. Census data from 2022.

All the while, Children's Mercy has seen a 67% increase in referrals since 2017.

Illuminate goals

Paul Kempinski, the CEO of Children's Mercy Hospital
Paul Kempinski, the CEO of Children's Mercy Hospital.

Make no mistake, this is a crisis.

Illuminate plans to — 

Facilitate early intervention

  • Mental health integration in primary care;
  • School-based programs;
  • Care coordination (intake, triage and navigation);
  • Behavioral therapy services.

Increase specialty services

  • Depression and anxiety (DAY Clinic);
  • Eating disorders;
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD);
  • Autism;
  • Rapid diagnosis.

Invest in research and innovation

  • Precision dosing for mental health medication;
  • Ensuring equity in care;
  • Patient education;
  • Safety plan app;
  • Clinician education.

Expand inpatient hospital care

  • Inpatient psychiatric campus;
  • Acute mental health crisis center;
  • Partial hospital program;
  • Integrated inpatient unit.

As part of this series, I wanted to go in-depth on three specific aspects of Illuminate. Each of those stories will be added here so readers and viewers can experience this effort as a whole.
You'll meet patients, doctors, social workers, parents and even a CEO.

Every person brings a unique and valuable perspective to the crisis unfolding in children throughout the Kansas City area and beyond.

My hope is that you'll dive in and walk away armed with information, insight and a new vision of what's possible through strategic programming and purpose.

Part I: To the people

Children's Mercy Illuminate program
Children's Mercy illuminate program

Dr. Kristen Stuppy is a friendly face and pediatrician at Pediatric Partners.

I asked her, "How serious would you say our mental health crisis is with young people?"

She responded, "Very serious. I've been doing this for about 25 years, and I don't know that I've ever seen the number of kids that are suffering from mental health issues in a variety of capacities."

That dim reality is backed by data. The CDC reports one in five kids from ages 3-17 suffers from a mental health disorder.

Paul Kempinski, CEO at Children's Mercy Hospital, weighed in on the issue.

"Unfortunately, in the Kansas City region in Missouri and in Kansas, the statistics are even more sobering," Kempinski said. "We estimate that maybe only 30 to 40% of those children are actually getting the help that they need."

Beyond access are brutal waiting periods for mental health services for children, often as long as three to nine months.

Sean Haley, a behavioral health specialist at Pediatric Partners, explained why.

"There's a severe lack of psychiatrists to do med management and monitor kids in that capacity," he said.

Currently, CMH is in the midst of the launch of one of the 14 Illuminate programs.

It's a pilot program bringing mental health professionals into pediatric offices throughout the Kansas City area to facilitate early intervention and provide services while kids are on wait lists for more permanent providers.

Pediatric Partners is one of three local pediatric offices testing this model, with Haley as its partner on site.

I asked Stuppy, "What kind of a difference has it already made or do you hope it will make?"

She responded, "I am hopeful that it will help families get immediate mental health issues covered. It is meant to be a bridge toward waiting for a more permanent mental health home, and I'm very hopeful. I know that at least one of my partners has already had a patient in the office who needed something right then and there and was able to call Sean and get him to help that family, so that was awesome."

Kempinski elaborated further on what the first program has already added.

"In the schools, in the offices of the pediatricians, we are embedding professionals that can help evaluate, screen, diagnose and ensure that a child gets to the right caregiver at the right time, before the crisis occurs," Kempinski said.

At a time when access to mental health resources is a challenge, I wanted to know, "How unique is it to be in a community clinic like this?"

Haley shared, "Really, access is difficult for families right now. There's a number of things that impact a family's ability to access mental health services. One thing that is accessible right now is pediatric care. And embedding clinicians in this environment, I think is a great first step.”

Response to the first program has already been overwhelming, with parents taking full advantage of this new resource.

Two years ago, three major medical associations collectively declared a national health emergency. Fifteen million children in this country need mental health services, and locally, at Children's Mercy Hospital, there has been a 67% increase in referrals for kids.

Part II: A new day

Emma Steinman and Danielle Amey
Emma Steinman and Danielle Amey

One area Illuminate focuses on is depression and anxiety.

Emma Steinman, an all-star athlete, was sidelined by her anxiety after a major surgery and the death of her grandmother.

“I will just say that therapy and surgery really took the best part of me ... it killed me inside," Steinman said. "I don't think I've ever cried so much because I wanted to go back to something."

Her mom, Danielle Amey, was on the sidelines, watching it all.

“It just broke my heart," she said. "I wish I would have caught it a lot sooner, but we caught it when we needed to catch it.”

Emma told me she didn't realize how much her anxiety impacted her until she started at the depression and anxiety, or DAY, clinic.

DAY is one initiative included in the 14 programs of the Illuminate campaign.

I sat down with Dr. Ram Chettiar, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at CMH. He's also the medical director for the DAY clinic. I wanted to know, “What are the biggest priorities before it gets started?”

Chettiar said, “One of the biggest priorities we had was the access to care problem. So a lot of families, when they do identify that there's a mental health issue and they look for help, they are surprised to find out that there's not a lot of help that exists, or there's a long waitlist to get into these programs, and when someone is suffering with depression or anxiety symptoms now, waiting six or more months doesn't often seem like a reasonable option.”

It's a group therapy model, but getting a group of teens to talk about their mental health struggles seemed like a big hurdle.

“I hear that when kids go to the groups, they are often very uncomfortable," Chettiar said. "Obviously, they have anxiety issues, and they don't really love to be there, but by the end, they really learn a lot about themselves. They realize that they're not alone when they're dealing with mental health struggles, and they grow stronger through that work with each other."

This program also offers an opportunity to teach parents. Amey talked about her experience.

“They would bring us in, they'd kind of fill us in on what they kind of talked about, what they accomplished within the hour and a half," Amey said. "[They] also gave us coping tools or strategies, so we would either get a handout or homework for the next week and stuff because they were very open to us asking questions if there was anything."

Just like on the court, Illuminate is helping Emma refine her skills to play and live better.

“For me, it's still there no matter what I do, but I've just learned strategies to help myself know that I can do something and put it behind me without it being right in front of my face," she exhaled.

She's back on her feet, healed from knee surgery and surrounded by her teammates once again.

Now, she has a message for others.

“I definitely want other kids to know that it's OK to ask your parents for help because I think a lot of parents will miss the signs. But the kids are also really scared to ask," she said. "So I just want other kids to know that it's okay to ask for help because it honestly is the best thing that you could ever do.”

At the end of our interview, Emma turned to her mom and told her, “I just think it was probably one of the best things that you have done, and I honestly really do appreciate it.”

With a smile, Amey replied, “I'm very proud of her. I'm very proud of the work she put in. I think she's proud of herself, and that's what I wanted her to get out of it.”

The DAY clinic is comprised of a team of five — a psychiatrist, mental health nurse practitioner, psychologist and social worker.

Emma is a proud graduate of the first cohort. The clinic is open to middle and high school kids from 12-17 years old.

Part III: Expanding for emergencies

Kellye Crockett and her daughter, Elizabeth
Kellye Crockett and her daughter, Elizabeth.

There are zero designated psychiatric beds for kids with complex and, sometimes multiple, mental health disorders in Kansas City.

Thanks to Illuminate, construction is underway to change that and help young people battling the most difficult and dark diagnoses.

I walked into a home that felt a lot different three years ago and asked Kellye Crockett to "tell me about the day you showed up at the ER.”

She answered, “Elizabeth was not capable of controlling her emotions. And so she locked herself in the basement and she started throwing things and she started screaming about wanting to hurt herself."

Crockett is Elizabeth's mom. She called 911 and paramedics brought them to Children's Mercy Hospital.

“Some days we have up to 30 kids that are in like a suicidal state coming through our emergency department," said Kathryn Worland, director of social work child and family mental health services at Children’s Mercy Hospital. "So some days as you're just being exposed to all of that, it can just be a little bit overwhelming."

Regarding her daughter's incident, Crockett said she's the only one who remembers every detail of what happened that day.

“She was thinking about suicide, and I want to say those words out loud because I know that there are other families that are probably watching right now," she said. "And they need to know that it's okay that we say the word suicide out loud, and it's okay if our kiddos are thinking about suicide. We can help them.”

Worland is part of the team that thoughtfully designed a new Emergency Mental Health Crisis Center at CMH, with construction set to begin soon.

“A nice space, carved out an emergency department inside for those patients, specifically," she said. "[A] space that's designed for those patients and is really geared toward helping them start to heal from the moment they walk in the door. We’re trying to design a more patient-friendly, kid-friendly environment for patients in acute mental health crises. ... Children's Mercy is a really magical place to be, but if you're in mental health crisis, it's not an ideal state to be in a room in an emergency department next to potentially a trauma that just came in or something else happening."

During our interview, there was banging and knocking from work around the hospital, to which Worland stopped and said, "I mean, those are the things that we're battling with this situation.”

CMH CEO Paul Kempinski added, “This will be a unit contiguous to our emergency department so that when a child comes in, they can be triaged and screened appropriately and put into a part of our facility that is designed, equipped and staffed to be able to care for the child that may be in some form of mental health crisis and to do a better job of caring for the child and supporting the family under those circumstances.”

I asked Elizabeth, “How much do you think that would have helped you?”

She replied, “I think that that would have helped me so much. I think that if I had just had a calmer environment, things probably could have gone a lot smoother.”

A big challenge with the current facility is the wait times can be extended.

“On average, it could be anywhere from five to 14 hours, depending on whether the patient's going home or whether they're going to an inpatient hospital," Worland shared. “It's a very long time, and in the emergency department, yes, it is.”

Crockett and Elizabeth spent four nights in the ER.

“That tears me apart. It's like someone is just ripping my heart out of my body because I know my baby girl is begging, begging for help,” Crockett reflected.

Illuminate is also dedicating a project to what happens after a crisis.

In a partnership with Camber Mental Health, a new inpatient facility will create 72 beds with 48 dedicated to children. That facility is already under construction.

Crockett wants families throughout the Kansas City area to know, "It's happening in every zip code. It's happening in every neighborhood. It's happening on all sides of the state line. All of us are affected by this mental health youth crisis."

I got to ask Elizabeth, “How happy are you that you're still here?”

In classic teenage fashion, she laughed, “You know, I'd say I'm pretty satisfied with being alive. I give it four stars. I give it a four-star Yelp review.”

Would you like to help?

If you want to help support the work Children's Mercy Hospital is doing through Illuminate, please consider them this Giving Tuesday.

Scan this QR code below and make a tax-deductible donation of any amount:

Children's Mercy Hospital QR code
Children's Mercy Hospital QR code

KSHB 41 is a Voice for Everyone. You can learn more about our coverage, including our mission statement, on our landing page.

If you have a voice or story to share, e-mail us at