KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As part of a high-profile White House initiative, the metropolitan area is among a handful of communities around the country expected to gather hundreds of people for a meeting about mental illness within the next few months.
“This has all happened very, very quickly,” said Jennifer Wilding, director of Consensus, the Kansas City, Mo.-based nonprofit coordinating the event. The organization specializes in getting people involved in problem solving.
Wilding said the group expected to hold the daylong event no later than the end of September at a site to be determined.
To maintain momentum for the initiative, national organizers want the main events, such as the one scheduled in the Kansas City area, to take place by the end of the year.
The goal is to pull together about 300 people, with more than half being members of the general public. Wilding said organizers would recruit the other participants from within the mental health system, split evenly between practitioners, people with mental illness and family members.
The goal would be to come up with ideas to improve public understanding of mental illness and identify ways to improve mental health services.
The call to action came June 3 when President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced the “Creating Community Solutions” campaign. The initiative is part of the broader National Dialogue on Mental Health that the president called for in January.
Federal officials said Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., would join Sacramento, Calif., Albuquerque, N.M., Birmingham, Ala., Washington, D.C, and Akron, Ohio as the lead sites for hosting the gatherings of several hundred people each.
Consensus has raised more than half the $100,000 that lead sites are required to secure as seed funding for the ideas that come out of the event, Wilding said.
She said the national plan is to have 10 lead sites around the country, with smaller gatherings expected in other communities.
According to the Creating Community Solutions website, the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan., is expected to be the site for a Kansas Town Hall Forum in late September or early October. It also lists the United Way of the Flint Hills in Emporia, Kan., as another organization planning an event.
The list does not include any other Missouri sites.
“I think it’s terribly important to get folks talking about mental illness because it’s so prevalent, it’s so pervasive, and it’s a topic that everyone wants to duck and hide from, even when it’s in their own family,” said Rick Cagan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Kansas.
Calls for more public understanding and awareness about mental health issues have come against the backdrop of mass shootings, such as the one on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed more than two dozen people in an elementary school, including 20 children.
The same day, Obama directed the federal departments of education and health and human services to initiate a “national conversation to increase understanding about mental health.”
On Jan. 16, Obama also signed executive orders addressing gun violence and called on Congress to enact gun-control measures.
He invoked the memories of the school children in Newtown along with victims of other mass shootings in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Oregon.
Untreated mental illness costs $1.17 billion annually in Kansas, according to a study released last year by the Health Forward Foundation. In the KC metro area, according to the study, the cost is $624 million per year — about $287 million of which was also included in the statewide Kansas tally.
There are times, Wilding said, when the public mood makes action particularly achievable.
“Mental health is at that point in the trajectory,” she said. “It is at the top of public awareness.”
Wilding said Kansas City was well positioned to become a lead site because local organizers had been talking for the last year or so about holding such an event.
Sean Swindler was part of that discussion. He is director of community program development and evaluation with the Kansas Center for Autism Research and Training at the University of Kansas.
Feelings of isolation and trouble finding work can lead to depression among people with autism, he said. And like people with mental illness, Swindler said, autistic individuals sometimes feel stigmatized and misunderstood.
He said he hoped that the event in Kansas City would produces three or four action items.
“You can’t do everything,” Swindler said. “You’ve got to focus.”