Missouri must fix Kansas City mental health hospital, but the problem is much bigger | Opinion

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If Gov. Mike Parson signs off on construction of a new $300-million psychiatric hospital in Kansas City — and we urge him to — Missouri will take a small, but important, step to fix a broken system.

In 2004, the state’s Center for Behavioral Medicine opened on Hospital Hill, replacing the outdated and dilapidated Western Missouri Mental Health Center. But now, less than two decades later, the building housing the center is being described as a dump unfit for patients.

“It is in terrible disrepair,” state Sen. Greg Razer, a Kansas City Democrat, told The Star “I toured it a few weeks ago and, I mean, we should not have humans living there. Just the lack of sunlight, I can’t even describe it.”

But before putting $300 million into a replacement facility, state officials would do well to figure out how the 2004 structure deteriorated so quickly. Taxpayers don’t want to be told 20 years from now that this new building also has been allowed to crumble.

That said, there is an urgent need for quality mental health treatment options. The COVID-19 pandemic not only added to the mental stress on the population — it also revealed that our system for helping Missourians with mental illness isn’t much of a well-planned system at all. It’s a patchwork of public and private answers that doesn’t always get the job done.

As the state invests in this new facility, it also should put resources into a thorough review of what our mental health system needs to make it both effective and efficient.

But expectations for a well-planned system need to be reasonable. A good system for treating people with mental challenges will not fix everything that needs fixing. For instance, after almost every mass shooting — now a daily occurrence somewhere in the U.S. — the public hears calls for improved mental health treatment options. And they are needed, but so are sensible laws to limit access to high-powered weapons designed to be used by the military, not by civilians.

Beyond that, officials evaluating mental health treatment options need to take into account the factors that were not adding to psychological stresses just a few years ago. For instance, the high-tech companies that run social media platforms add to mental health problems by using algorithms that systematically drive users deeper into rabbit holes of misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories and more — all in the name of profit through advertising.

What once was touted as the great information superhighway has turned into what often seems like a destructive traffic jam of rage. One result is that the well-being of social media users suffers, sometimes overwhelming the capacity of the mental health system.

A related issue, as The Star reported, is that a shortage of beds has forced some patients who should be in a mental health hospital to remain in jail, where they get no treatment.

Charlie Shields, president of University Health, put it this way: “They have folks that right now need this kind of treatment that are sitting in county jails across the state, (who), frankly, can’t get the treatment they need to get them to the point where they can properly represent themselves in trial.”

If Gov. Parson approves the funding, the new facility would have 100 beds that the state would operate for long-term care and 100 beds that University Health would oversee. The funding also would pay for an emergency department to which anyone in crisis could come to receive care.

But, of course, construction will take time, meaning that authorities should do whatever they can now to make the current Center for Behavioral Medicine as livable as possible. And the state should do a thorough review of how it approaches mental health treatment so that when the new center opens it can be part of a rational, efficient and effective system for the many people who need high-quality services.