Youth suicide rates are rising in Kansas. A teen crisis center in Johnson County could help

People gathered on the playground at Sunset Ridge Elementary School for a vigil to remember 17-year-old John Albers after his death.
People gathered on the playground at Sunset Ridge Elementary School for a vigil to remember 17-year-old John Albers after his death. The Star

A lifesaving network activates when an adult suffering a mental health crisis spirals on the Kansas side of the state line and police must be called.

The struggling patient can be taken to a crisis center for immediate help.

Called RSI, the center has been open for about three years. In fact, in late January, state and local officials gathered for a ribbon cutting, dedicating a new upgraded center in Kansas City, Kan.

At the center, which is open 24/7, the adult patients are guided through a sobering up process if alcohol or drugs are involved. They’re immediately evaluated by mental health professionals. And efforts begin to find a placement for longer term treatment.

But in the entire state of Kansas, no such public facility exists for teenagers. What’s more, the number of psychiatric residential treatment beds available to serve children in Kansas has plummeted in recent years, from about 780 in 2011, to only about 208 now.

At all times, about 15 Johnson County teenagers are on a waiting list for an open bed.

This is why a suicidal teenager might wind up in the juvenile unit at the Johnson County Detention Center instead of an appropriate mental health center. And the police officer who brings the youth there must stay with them, as the building is neither staffed nor designed to care for children suffering a mental health crisis.

Three Johnson County officials are working on a solution: Tim DeWeese, director of the county’s mental health center; Robert Sullivan, director of corrections; and Ted Jester, director of juvenile services.

They’ve scoured county buildings for an available space and have tapped state officials to map out licensing requirements.

The men began their work shortly before the death of John Albers, a suicidal 17-year-old who was shot and killed by an Overland Park police officer last month.

The tragedy steeled their resolve. As did news that two Shawnee Mission Northwest High School students took their own lives. And all of the other cases of young people dealing with mental health conditions, most of which do not become headline news.

Both Missouri and Kansas have high rates of youth suicide. And the pace is accelerating.

Envisioned is a crisis center that Kansas parents could bring children to as well. Nearly 50 percent of people treated at crisis centers can be stabilized within the first 48 hours, Sullivan said.

But with limited bed space and no youth crisis center, young people too often end up at the juvenile detention center as a last resort. That’s an unintended criminalizing of mental illness.

Local civic leaders, state legislators and concerned parents can all have a role in advocating for a state and county partnership like the one that established RSI for adults from Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

In 2015, Johnson County drew praise for being one of four municipalities in the nation to sign onto the kickoff of “Stepping Up,” a push for governments to reduce the number of mentally ill people in jails. But again, those efforts were primarily for the benefit of adults.

The same must be done for youth.

After all, Johnson County built its reputation as a community for families with children through high standards for its schools, youth sports leagues and a wide range of businesses focused on healthy families.

Officials in Johnson County must be equally committed to attending to the mental health of young people.