Published July 26th, 2021 at 11:49 AM
Pierson Phillips was anxious about a lot of things, but public speaking was not one of them. In fact, he used this skill to help others like him.
At a young age, he began giving speeches to large crowds, advocating for more mental health services. He even spoke with lawmakers in Washington D.C. Diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression, he knew firsthand the challenges that come with accessing care.
“Everyone is someone’s loved one and we are all worth saving,” he said in his last speech.
He tried therapy and hotlines. He even checked into a psychiatric facility a couple of times. But he encountered various hurdles, such as driving long distances, insurance coverage problems and, sometimes, feeling like he wasn’t being listened to.
In 2019, Pierson died by suicide at the age of 14. Despite being a vocal advocate, he couldn’t receive the care he needed, said his mother Hilaire. But she took the helm of his advocacy work through a nonprofit she created in his name: The Pierson Project.
“It’s important for those of us who can speak — because not everyone should or need to — but those who can need to tell their stories so we know what changes need to be made,” Hilaire said. “My kid didn’t finish 8th grade. He’d be 17 this year.”
She added: “I will never know what he would be like. I will never get to have a first date, homecoming, prom, graduation. We get nothing. Our future is gone. And it’s gone because we had to wait to get the help he needed.”
The Phillips family’s experience shows that the process of finding a therapist or psychiatrist is often unwieldy and confusing. Tack on the cost and it can feel impossible.
“(The health care system is) difficult to navigate,” said Cecil Wattree, a licensed psychologist and founder of the Kansas City Black Mental Health Initiative, a partnership with Uzazi Village.
Wattree said there are layers of barriers that make it more difficult to find help when someone needs it.
The cost can be one of the more overwhelming barriers. So, Wattree said he plans on offering therapy on a sliding scale for Black folks and people of color without insurance once he opens his private practice.
The key to getting people in the door is making it financially accessible.
That’s why Christina Santiago wrote to curiousKC in the first place.
“Are there pay-what-you-can options for therapy in Kansas City?” Santiago asked. “Or options for those who don’t have health insurance to help cover the cost?”
The answer isn’t simple. In short, it depends.
LaTosha Morris understands the complex nature of mental health help. She’s in the mental health field, previously as a social worker, and has worked at multiple clinics in the Kansas City area.
Although there are options, she said, many health systems fall short or their services aren’t comprehensive enough.
“You may essentially get one piece of the puzzle resolved but then there are other pieces lingering,” she said.
For example, an individual may find a mental health professional but doesn’t have transportation help to get to their appointment. This unravels their plan to get the help they need when they need it.
“When you are in crisis your ability to do the footwork is diminished,” Morris explained.
For those who are underinsured or uninsured, Morris rattled off a list of Kansas City area hospital systems and clinics that may be an option.
“Child Abuse Prevention Agency’s counseling services are basically free, but participants can pay for their services if they would like to and are able,” CAPA Program Director Kristina Slaughter wrote on Facebook to Flatland’s request for information. “The payments are received as donations.”
The problem is, Morris explained, that not many people know that these services exist until there is a crisis. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic made it even more difficult for vulnerable folks to find help.
“I know they are flawed systems. I hate that people feel like there isn’t availability,” she said. “Therapy is hard to do if you ain’t got no food, if you can’t pay your bills … It’s going to be really tough to do some self insight and work on deeper-level traumas if you don’t have basic living needs.”
In a 2021 report, Mental Health America ranked Missouri 41st and Kansas 36th when it comes to accessing mental health care. The measurements include access to insurance, access to treatment, access to special education, the quality and cost of insurance and workforce availability.
Workers in the field often say that physical health is linked to mental health. They contend so should the insurance coverage.
Rep. Patty Lewis, a Democratic representative for the 25th district in Kansas City, Missouri, knows that well. Lewis was a nurse who spent years working in the Intensive Care Unit and saw vulnerable patients day in and day out. Many were forced to decide between paying rent or for their prescriptions.
What insurance didn’t cover only added to their stress, which could snowball into a mental health crisis.
“When we look at physical health, we have to also look at mental health because they go hand in hand,” Lewis said.
That is why, in her first year in the Missouri House of Representatives, she sponsored HB889, a bill that would prohibit insurers from placing limitations on mental health benefits. The bill took effect the first week of July.
For parents like Hilaire Phillips who have lost their children because of poor access to mental health services when they needed them most, the urgency to bridge the gap is even more palpable.
“I don’t care where they come from, I don’t care what race they are, what their socioeconomic statuses are if they have health insurance or not,” she said. “If they need the care, we need to make sure they get it.”
Marissa Plescia is a Dow Jones summer intern at Kansas City PBS. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Hilaire Phillips as Hilaire Pierson. This story has been updated.