Wyandotte court helps mentally ill with wellness docket

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- People living with mental illness are a constant challenge in Wyandotte County, where often those needing help end up in jail or the emergency room.

A unique wellness docket helps the mentally ill get their lives back on track.

The idea is to provide community based support for those who need it, and keep the mentally ill out of the revolving door of the most expensive treatment locations: hospitals and jails.

Step into Judge Kate Lynch's courtroom and you immediately notice it's not like any other. Judge Lynch does not wear a black robe and is quick to tell those who require treatment that she is there to help, not punish.
She says the less formal environment helps encourage a conversation about what's best for those who need treatment.
And people living with mental illness are less likely to feel forced into complying with court orders.

"I heard this woman with lived experience speaking about how every time she walked into the courtroom, the judge sitting on that big, high bench, wearing that black, shiny robe, her palms would start to sweat," Lynch recalled. "Her heart would start to race. She would start to react and then she would act out. Then she would end up in jail regardless of what was going to happen in courtroom."

Lynch also makes sure the mentally ill work with the same lawyer throughout the recovery process, and she requires case managers and a local mental health center liaison to be always in the courtroom, so that problems can be solved and no patient falls through the cracks in the network of community support resources.

The change is making a difference. Civil commitments had averaged 140 or 150 a year. But the new process has helped get that down to just 100. The judge says state budget problems and a moratorium at the state mental hospital are causing those numbers to start creeping back up again.