Author: CRISTINA JANNEY
After 45 years of service, Walt Hill, director of High Plains Mental Health Center, will retire effective January.
Hill, 71, has seen tremendous growth at the mental health center as well as led innovation in technology that has expanded the reach of mental health services to thousands of rural residents in northwest Kansas.
Hill moved to Hays with his wife so he could attend graduate school at Fort Hays State University. He worked as a mental health services intern as a student, then was hired as a therapist in the psychiatric unit at Hadley Hospital after graduation.
“I had a personal interest in helping other people,” he said. “I had a brother with a long-term mental illness.”
He pointed to a painting hanging on the wall of his brother and his brother’s friends who supported him on his journey through mental illness.
On the opposite wall is a picture of his mother with his brothers.
“They grew up very, very poor and had struggles,” he said, “so there were just things I wanted to give back. I wanted to live a life of service and mission.”
Hill worked in administration and developed programs for substance abuse treatment and crisis management.
In 1988, he left Hays to work at a children’s psychiatric hospital in Minnesota. Hill and his family missed Hays and moved back within a year. Hill continued to work at High Plains Mental Health, eventually working his way up to director of clinical services and then executive director.
When High Plains was founded in 1964, it employed three people and had a budget of $32,000. When Hill took over as executive director in 2003, the center’s budget was $7.9 million.
Today, High Plains has about 150 employees and an additional budget of $10 million.
High Plains now serves 20 counties in northwest Kansas, with a catchment area of approximately 100,000 people. It is the largest geographic area covered by a community mental health center in Kansas.
“Innovation is really important for mental health to be able to keep up with the needs of people, especially in border areas, to be able to provide the services that are needed when there are not many service providers in rural areas,” Hill said.
As director of clinical services, Hill helped develop High Plains’ telemedicine services in the 1990s. At that time, the service was in its infancy nationwide.
He said telemedicine has been absolutely critical in providing mental health services to rural Kansas residents.
Before the use of telemedicine, psychiatrists traveled by car or plane to rural areas of the state. This severely limited the time doctors could spend with clients. The doctor was only allowed to see patients once a month in a remote location.
Hill said chartering a plane or paying a service provider to drive for hours was very expensive.
When the pandemic hit, Hill said telemedicine was a blessing. Some community mental health services had to lay off staff. Because High Plains already had a telemedicine system in place, its providers were able to continue seeing clients.
Hill’s tenure at High Plains Mental Health has seen many other changes in the state’s mental health system.
Those suffering from mental health problems were transferred from hospitals to community care. Screening was carried out to ensure that people admitted to the hospital had to be there.
Many services were developed to keep people out of hospitals and communities.
Because of the cost, HaysMed, like other hospitals across the state, were forced to close their psychiatric departments.
To partially fill that void, High Plains Mental Health opened the four-bed Schwaller Center for Psychiatric Crisis Intervention.
“People have been saved from having to drive to Larned, they’ve been able to see a psychiatrist and have their medication adjusted and have a safe place to be. That’s been a critical development,” Hill said.
In preparation for his retirement, Hill has discussed with the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services the need to expand crisis services similar to those at the Schwaller Center.
Psychiatric patients have been kept in emergency rooms for hours or days waiting to be admitted to state hospitals, Hill said.
High Plains also developed branches in Colby, Goodland, Norton, Osborne and Phillipsburg.
In the 1990s, High Plains developed housing for people with chronic mental illness. These included Wood Haven in Hays and Colby House in Colby.
“I think we have better techniques and science to treat people,” Hill said.
High Plains recently implemented a medication-assisted substance abuse program for people with opioid addiction. Customers receive both medication and counseling.
“We’ve had a dramatic, but not enough, reduction in stigma,” Hill said.
More funding is available to treat people in their communities instead of state hospitals, but maintaining a workforce of mental health providers remains a challenge, he said.
High Plains now also offers assertive community treatment in partnership with the court system. The program works with individuals who may have been in hospitals and out for court-ordered treatment. The team helps the individual with stability goals.
High Plains Mental Health Center has become a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic during Hill’s tenure. The center received grants to start programs such as medication-assisted outpatient care and assertive community care, and has been able to continue these programs through Medicaid funding.
High Plains became an early adopter of a community-based Mental Health First Aid training program. To date, more than 3,300 Northwest Kansas residents have been certified in the program by High Plains staff trainers.
The center has also promoted the agricultural community and now offers services to Spanish-speaking residents.
High Plains has expanded its services to include cooperative programs with all but one school district in its catchment area. Students can attend class without leaving school.
“The goal is to prevent people from falling through the cracks,” Hill said.
In his broader career, Hill said he hopes to have promoted the acceptance and importance of mental health services and made mental health services more accessible in rural areas.
Hill said he has emphasized to his staff that he doesn’t want a retirement party or “shenanigans,” as he put it.
“Recognition is important to me, that the lives we’ve impacted and the people we’ve helped, even those who don’t come back to say thank you,” he said. “They go on with their lives. That’s important. That’s meaningful to me.”
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