Local Columnists

Alan Bavley: Mental health ‘disaster’ stirs dark memories for ex-Osawatomie patient


Hearing what’s happening lately to the mental health system in Kansas is giving Sharon Jacobs an alarming case of deja vu.

Back in the 1970s, spurred by her own bad experience at Osawatomie State Hospital, Jacobs became part of a patients’ rights movement that brought significant reforms to the state, along with improved patient care. Now, the Overland Park woman believes the system is in shambles, no better than it was when she was committed.

Consider that recently:

There were so many building code and safety violations at Osawatomie, one of just two state-operated psychiatric hospitals left in Kansas, that federal regulators threatened to cut off its funding. Construction required to rehab the hospital shut down 60 of its 206 beds. That’s brought restrictions on new admissions, even of severely ill people.

One patient recently released from Osawatomie to a residential facility has been charged with second-degree murder for allegedly beating another patient to death. His family thinks Osawatomie released him too soon.

“Right now, I think it’s the biggest disaster I’ve ever seen in social services,” Jacobs said. People in need of services will end up on the street or in jail, she said. “It will take a tremendous amount of work to get the system up and running.”

Jacobs also saw a lot wrong with the mental health system in the 1960s when she was committed for 90 days to Osawatomie after a suicide attempt. She was 17. Patients could be locked in seclusion — the mental health equivalent of solitary confinement, she says — for months at a time. Their mail could be censored.

In 1970, Jacobs joined with other mental health consumers and professionals in a patients’ right movement that made its case strongly and loudly and got legislation passed that addressed many of the system’s abuses such as seclusion.

Jacobs is dismayed she doesn’t hear those loud protests coming from the mental health community now. Care providers seem to be “standing back.” And consumers “don’t know how (to protest). They’re scared of the powers that be.”

Jacobs said she was told at Osawatomie that she was schizophrenic, that she would never go to college and would never amount to anything. But she went on to earn a psychology degree from Avila in 1975 and to hold down steady jobs as long as her physical health permitted. Years after her Osawatomie stay, she was correctly diagnosed as bipolar.

Jacobs wants a mental health system now where people have a chance to succeed with the treatment they get and not in spite of it.