By Tessa Karbowski | Wichita Journalism Collaborative
Eric Litwiller is the Director of Development and Communications at the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas
While the title is a mouthful, it is an important one as he informs the community of the current state of mental health in Kansas. Litwiller doesn’t shy away from saying that through Mental Health America’s Annual State of Mental Health in America Report for 2023 that Kansas is ranked last in overall mental health issues.
The report states “the indicators that had the largest effect on the overall ranking for Kansas were youth with substance use disorder in the past year (9.05%, ranked 51), adults with any mental illness (26.02%, ranked 48) and adults with serious thoughts of suicide (6.44%, ranked 48).”
One key to improvement, Litwiller says, is increasing access. Even though therapy might be close in proximity, there may not be enough diversity within therapy which is important because experiences and backgrounds matter in mental health. Even language barriers can play a big role.
Litwiller brings up the point that when someone breaks their hand, most people know what to do. But when someone is having a mental health emergency in public, people are not always sure how to respond. He says the default might be to call the police, but if the person is not breaking any laws, they really need to be directed to mental health specific organizations to receive the exact help for their issues. Just because it is something that is unfamiliar, does not mean that laws are being broken. He gives an example of a homeless person yelling at squirrels on the streets. The person is not breaking the law, but they could still need mental health help. He says that this demonstrates a lack of parity, or similar responses, between mental and physical health.
Litwiller mentioned that seven years ago, he married his wife who had two daughters. Becoming a parental figure for the first time, he had no clue how to navigate whether his stepdaughters needed mental health evaluations or not. He says that if a person can’t perform “the normal daily tasks of living” or a “(dramatic) change in normal behavior.” He also mentions that a lot of his fears were settled by talking to clinicians and asking them about what the warning signs are.
Litwiller says we need to be willing to normalize regular check ups for people who are not even diagnosed. He says a commonly coined term over at the Mental Health Association is getting your annual “check up from the neck up.”
If we go and get annual physicals from our primary care physician, what keeps us from going and getting annual check ups from a psychiatrist or a mental health counselor? “Whether you are feeling there is a problem or not, what’s the harm in taking an hour out of your life or year and going to talk to a therapist,” Litwiller says.
If it turns out that you do not have any mental health concerns, then at least you know. If the therapist does determine there is a need for mental health assistance, then the therapist can plan the best way to give a patient the help they need. The change of mindset, Litwiller says, is about making mental health a priority in our personal lives and for the greater community.