Kids In Crisis: A KSNT News Special Report

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Children in Shawnee County are being hospitalized with mental health issues at a rate higher than the state’s average. In fact, it’s more than double.

The most recent numbers from the Kids Count Data Book show that 7.4 children in 1,000 were hospitalized in Shawnee County last year. Osage County is a close second at 7.2. The number’s just more 3 in 1,000 statewide. That’s why the Shawnee Heights School District is reaching kids in their schools, trying to teach them how to deal with issues like depression and anxiety.

“Kids can’t learn when they are depressed. Kids can’t learn when they suffer from severe anxiety,” Dr. Martin Stessman, the USD 450 superintendent explains.

Dr. Stessman hears the cry for help in his own schools’ halls–principals telling him of the needs their counselors can’t meet. So, a few years ago he hired the district’s first social worker.

“You really just kind of open up the door, and you take what comes.” enter Craig Hidy who’s now in his fourth year as a social worker in the Shawnee Heights School District. He’s one of just two for 3,500 students.

“I think school systems are the perfect fit for mental health because with that, you have someone right there on the forefront that might be able to pinpoint for parents or for families, ‘hey, there’s something that’s not right here’,” Hidy said.

It’s a team approach that includes all involved but founded on a personal relationship.

“Individually, when I meet with kids one on one, I get to know them really well,” Hidy told KSNT news. “I usually build really good rapport.”

Dr. Stessman is taken aback to be asked whether or not school social workers are worth the cost in salary.

“Absolutely!”, Stessman affirmed. When you help kids at 12, 13, 10, 16, no matter what the age, when you help to intervene and when you help to change the direction when they’re that young, it helps to change the trajectory of their life.”

Stessman says there’s no specific funding for social workers. Their salaries are paid mostly from the general fund, supplemented by their work with special education students. The school district’s two social workers see 50 to 60 kids each–full caseloads that continue to grow.

Mental health is a major issue every school in Shawnee County is dealing with.

“Some are doing more, some are doing less, but I think everyone is doing what they can.”

There’s educated speculation as to why Shawnee County’s numbers for children needing mental healthcare are so high. Educators and mental health experts think it may be because The Menninger Clinic, and the state hospital were once in the Capital City. Many people moved here to seek treatment, and when those facilities closed, they stayed. We may now be seeing mental health issues passed down to younger generations.

Sadly, many families don’t know where to begin to seek help. But in Shawnee County that’s where the Family Service and Guidance Center steps in.

“We provide outpatient service like family, individual group therapy, but we also provide more intensive service like case management, respite care, psycho-social groups so, a family could receive any kind of mental health support that they needed through family service and guidance center,” Nancy Crago with FSGC advised.

There’s also help in Riley County where the rates of kids being hospitalized for mental health is also higher than the state average. Pawnee Mental Health Services serves the Manhattan area. In fact, there are 29 community mental health centers in Kansas.

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