OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Teddy Briedenthal was the typical Johnson County kid. Loving parents, three adoring sisters, friends.
"He was funny. He was a practical joker," his dad Ted Briedenthal Sr. said. "He loved his family."
"He was a really good big brother," his youngest sister Julia added.
But for years he held a dark secret: sexual abuses at the hands of a cousin. It started when Teddy was 8 years old. He was 17 when he finally came clean and shared his depression and anxiety over what had happened.
But sharing that meant a new phase: getting him help.
"It seemed like every step was a dead end," his mom Joni Briedenthal said.
The family tried multiple counselors, doctors and even in-patient options. Often they were told the resource was out-of-network for insurance or that there were long waits for help. Or if they got in, the counselor wasn't a good fit for Teddy, who continued to struggle and fell further into despair.
When he turned 18 and went off to college, new privacy barriers made it even more difficult. Teddy sank further into despair and painful hopelessness, according to his family.
"It's not unusual for people to struggle finding a mental heath professional to work with their family member," Dr. Bob Batterson said.
The Children's Mercy psychiatrist said there's a shortage of practitioners nationwide, including in Kansas and Missouri. One study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found Kansas needs 39 psychiatrists to meet its shortage while Missouri needs 159.
One key reason: Studies have found insurance providers reimburse psychiatrists and other mental health professionals at lower payment rates than other specialists. Batterson said medical school grads often skip residencies in psychiatry for higher paying specialties.
"They go unfilled because doctors who are graduating graduate with $200,000 and $300,000 worth of debt, and they're going to need to go into a specialty that's going to pay the bills," Batterson said.
In the meantime, state legislatures have found mental health programs easy targets for budget cuts, noted Kyle Kessler, the executive director of Community Mental Health Centers in Kansas.
Kessler said while lawmakers are restoring cuts from prior years, they haven't restored the funding to even pre-cut levels:
"At some point, we devalue the brain as an organ," Kessler said with a sigh.
Both Kessler and Batterson said families must advocate as loudly as they can for their loved ones. They also argue insurance reimbursement rates must be equalized, student loan forgiveness programs continued for mental health trainees, and tele-medicine programs boosted to provide care to under-served rural areas.
This all comes as suicide numbers climb and needs for help grow.
For Teddy, help did not arrive in time. At 24, he took his own life, 16 years after the sexual abuse began.
"The pain, the torture he went through was something he never recovered from," his father said.
The family even struggled getting grief counseling. Programs were often full or therapists were out of network.
Eventually, months later, they all found the counseling they needed to cope with their loss. They wonder had help for Teddy had come in time, would he be alive today?
"Well, love couldn't save him," his mom said, adding softly, "So yeah."
If you are having suicidal thoughts, we urge you to get help immediately.
Go to a hospital, call 911 or call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).
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