KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Spurred in part by last year’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Wednesday proposed a $20 million initiative that he said would build upon a health-career training program he started four years ago and “close dangerous gaps in our mental health system.”
Appearing in a skills lab at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Nursing and Health Studies, Nixon said he would request the appropriation as part of the budget he submits next year to the General Assembly.
The initiative, Nixon said, would allow the state’s public colleges and universities to train an additional 1,200 students in mental health specialties. He expressed optimism that Missouri lawmakers would go along with the request.
“These are good jobs that are in demand right now,” he said. “We just need the qualified professionals to fill them.”
Under the proposal, UMKC would receive $4.2 million to train clinical psychologists, child psychiatrists and advanced nurse practitioners.
The funding should even help the School of Nursing and Health Studies hire professionals who are trained to exhibit signs of mental illness so that students can get practical experience in working with those conditions, said Ann Cary, dean of the school.
Metropolitan Community College would receive approximately $440,000 for a variety of initiatives, including starting a loan forgiveness program for nursing students who pursue mental health careers.
Nixon said that in response to the Newtown shooting the state has stressed mental health first aid training for teachers, clergy, and others so they can recognize early signs of mental illness.
He also said the state has placed law enforcement liaisons in Missouri’s 29 community mental health centers, and that the state has initiated pilot programs in six locations to try and break the cycle of people bouncing back and forth between jails and the emergency room.
The Newton shooting drew national attention after a mentally ill gunman killed 20 children and six adults before killing himself.
Nixon said as a result of the earlier responses “we clearly saw that we just did not have enough professionals to do the job and that it was a wide ranging problem.”
He said that 72 of Missouri’s 114 counties lack a licensed psychiatrist.
In Kansas, in response to the Newtown shooting, the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback proposed regional hubs to coordinate and offer mental health treatment for people considered at high-risk of ending up in jail or a state hospital.
Service providers have criticized the plan for a lack of funding. It remains largely in the conceptual stage.
Nixon’s proposal would be part of the Caring for Missourians initiative, which the governor announced at UMKC in 2009.
He pushed the program then, citing the fact that authorities had classified 95 Missouri counties as “health professional shortage areas,” meaning they lacked necessary primary care, mental or dental health providers based on the county’s population.
Today, he said, the federal government has designated nearly all of Missouri’s counties, and most of St. Louis City, as mental health professional shortage areas.
Since its inception, according to the governor, Caring for Missourians, has allocated $40 million to the state’s institutions of higher education to help approximately 1,500 students pursue health care careers.
Nixon said the original target was to assist 900 students.
Michele Withrow is among some of these newly minted professionals. She introduced Nixon at Wednesday’s event.
A native of Wichita, Kan., Withrow has spent the past 17 years as a nurse in Joplin, Mo. She also works in the nearby community of Riverton, Kan., at the Spring River Mental Health Center.
Last week, Withrow was one of three students in the first class of graduates from UMKC’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program.
Withrow completed the 15-month course largely online from Joplin. She said she intends to work in rural areas around Joplin.
Withrow said Joplin is a community that is still suffering the mental health effects of the deadly tornado that struck the city two years ago.
“Before, I could only offer support to people. But now, with this degree, I can diagnose, provide therapy and prescribe medications to those who need it,” she said. “It will help improve a lot of lives.”