Wichita is getting a new psychiatric hospital amid fears it’ll be too small

A push to get more mental health hospital beds in Wichita is underscored by long wait times in emergency rooms and the Sedgwick County Jail.

by Trace Salzbrenner

Kansas sits on the verge of building its first new state mental hospital in more than a century, even as officials acknowledge the original plans may not meet the region’s needs.

The $40 million 50-bed facility planned for a spot at Meridian Avenue and MacArthur Road in southwest Wichita is planned for completion in 2026 — with the expectation of expansion when more tax dollars become available.

“Something needs to give if someone needs that kind of care,” said Jennifer Wilson, director of crisis services at mental health care network COMCARE. “Our other option is two and a half hours away.” 

Half of the hospital’s 50 beds would serve acute patient care. The other 25 slots will be reserved for jail inmates needing evaluation or treatment. 

An advisory committee overseeing the hospital’s construction wants the plans adjusted to double the size to accommodate 100 patients.

Consider the demand for a south-central Kansas facility. Sedgwick County alone saw 57 residents admitted to state-run mental health hospitals in 2023 and 62 the year before. The county accounts for 15% of admissions to Larned State Hospital and 19% to Osawatomie State Hospital. 

Jared Schechter, the jail administrator for Sedgwick County Jail, said wait times for inmate psychiatric evaluations can run from six to 16 months. 

“In January,” he said, “we had 31 inmates waiting to be evaluated at a state mental health facility.” 

Sedgwick County Commissioner Sarah Lopez sits on the committee overseeing the hospital and said there’s wide recognition that it helps, but doesn’t fix, the shortage of mental health hospital openings. 

“We recognize that if we open a 50-bed hospital,” she said, “that’ll be full Day One.”

Mental health care needs in Wichita

Wilson said one of the biggest benefits to more beds is faster access to care. More beds mean more spots for Kansans to receive inpatient mental health treatment. 

She said that in December people waited an average of 42 hours in Kansas emergency rooms to receive psychiatric help. The new facility will not have an emergency room, but the presence of more beds means a referral can happen more quickly.

Patients who show up at hospitals to deal with a psychiatric crisis now, Wilson said, often wait two days before starting serious treatment when quicker care is critical. 

City Councilman Dalton Glasscock said the new hospital should shorten those waits.

A new hospital in south-central Kansas will bring some patients closer to their families and communities, factors that can speed recovery. 

“If we were in need of care,” Wilson said, “we would want to be close to family, friends and loved ones.” 

Scott Brunner, a deputy secretary of the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, said he wants people to stay close to services they know. 

His agency typically takes over care after a patient or a jail inmate gets directed to the state mental health care system by other hospitals or police. Then a state hospital provides treatment and medication to stabilize their condition.

The process ends with discharging the patient to their home communities, and connecting them with other providers for their ongoing treatment. 

“That’s much easier when they are close to home,” Brunner said. 

Schechter, the jail administrator, said his workers can’t give any treatment unless a prisoner poses a danger to themselves or others. 

“The best we can do is manage inmates through these difficult situations,” he said. 

Schechter said the wait for psychiatric care and evaluation often delays trials, meaning an inmate could be locked up for additional months without a conviction and crime victims wait that much longer to see a case play out.

“The average waiting time for those people was 180 days,” Schechter said. “One person has been waiting for 499 days.” 

Finding funding for more beds 

Lopez said the original plan was to build a facility that had room to grow, but the need for more beds is now. To get those extra spots, the project needs more tax money. 

“That is our biggest hurdle,” Lopez said, “finding more money.” 

The next steps in building a new mental health hospital in Wichita

The county will oversee the construction and then hand over operations to the state. Approval of the architectural plans and bids for construction come next.

Lopez and Brunner say their next step is listening. A town hall about the mental health facility is scheduled for Feb. 26, 6 p.m. at Wichita South High School. 

The $40 million for the project came from two sources — $25 million from federal COVID relief funds and $15 million state tax dollars.

“I want to get this right,” Lopez said. “I want to have enough space to make a bigger impact on the needs this community has.”