Like many mental health professionals, my father, David Wiebe, often asked: What is society’s obligation to care for the most vulnerable? Specifically, what should government do to help them?
Dad, who died recently at 76, addressed those questions during a career that spanned nearly 50 years, concluding as executive director of Johnson County Mental Health Center.
His goal was simple: to create a strong mental health safety net in Johnson County and Kansas. The private sector alone, he believed, could not do the job. The many strands of an effective safety net—crisis services, mental health training for police, affordable housing—required more than the goodwill of donors or foundations. He rejected the notion that the marketplace could adequately perform those tasks; government must play a significant role.
Dad was comfortable publicly stating those positions. But when it came to the principles that guided him he was more discrete. No bumper stickers on his car. No posters with inspirational quotes on his walls.
To learn about the values behind his actions you’d have to hang out and talk politics, one of his favorite topics. Maybe while sipping a beer on his deck.
In that setting you might hear him say: “When it comes to helping the most vulnerable, I figure there are two basic philosophies. On one hand, you have those who say, ‘Survival of the fittest.’ On the other there are those who say, ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’”
This was a shorthand explanation he used to frame one of our society’s basic conflicts. He never said which philosophy he embraced. But his Mennonite upbringing, his kindness, and his life’s work suggest his heart was firmly on the side of helping the least among us.
Still, Dad knew you could not win the day with a “my brother’s keeper” argument in Topeka. He was an even-tempered advocate. His tone was never strident. When speaking to legislators, he saw himself as an educator, providing compelling facts and stories.
In the 1950s, he’d say, Kansas had 5,000 state hospital beds for treating people with serious mental illness. Today, it has fewer than 300. Those 5,000 people haven’t gone away. In fact, many end up in emergency rooms and jails. Then, with a smile that belied his stubborn interior, he’d ask: What are we doing to treat these people? He didn’t mind if that question made his audience squirm.
The answer for Dad and other advocates has been community mental health. In the 80s and 90s, Dad was among the leaders who argued the state should invest in community-based care and treatment. People with serious mental illness deserved timely, accessible treatment. This position won the day and Kansas started to build a strong community-based system.
Unfortunately, that system has recently lost about half of its state funding for safety net care. When the cuts came, Dad continued his patient advocacy, even into retirement, as president of the Kansas Mental Health Coalition.
Six years ago, I became a mental health advocate for Wyandot Inc., and started leaning on Dad for professional advice. I learned the value of framing an issue simply. I learned about the complexities of our mental health system.
During rides to Topeka, I eavesdropped on conversations with reporters and state officials. And I’d hear about those two competing philosophies. Part of me wishes I’d asked him, “Dad, where exactly do you stand on this matter of bootstrap ethics versus my brother’s keeper?”
Because I didn’t, we’ll let his actions speak for themselves. I’m sure he’d prefer it that way.
Mark Wiebe, a former Kansas City Star reporter, lives in Roeland Park.