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Specialist shortage, scheduling issues complicate Lawrence families’ struggle to get kids mental health help

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Post updated at 8:29 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 16:

When Stacy Johnson, owner of Lawrence Play Therapy, looks at her appointment calendar at the launch of each week, she is struck by how full it is.

Johnson sees children back-to-back for 10 hours a day, from 9 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. on weekdays, only breaking for lunch.

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“I tell people when they call — sometimes people are really frustrated, which I understand, and they’re like, ‘Well, you don’t have one single opening?’”

Stacy Johnson

She says that “literally, if I put my (calendar) in front of you, you would see I have 10 appointments in a row tomorrow. I have nine in a row the next day. I literally have zero openings, unless I wouldn’t sleep or something like that. It’s a crisis in the sense that there’s just not enough of us to do the work,” she continued.

“The demand is way beyond anything (we) can handle,” said Johnson, who has been a therapist for 18 years. “I’ve been doing therapy with children and families the whole time and demand has definitely increased.”

There have never been enough therapists to provide mental health services specialized for children, Johnson said, but with the pandemic, the demand surged — along with the severity of need. 

“It’s gotten to more of like crisis level,” Johnson said. “There’s more children who are in more need of immediate services.”

Bridget Dixon

Bridget Dixon, a children’s therapist and owner of Monarch Play Therapy, can commiserate with Johnson. 

“I used to be able to squeeze someone in here and there’s not even (room) within the private practice community,” Dixon said. “I’ve been in private practice eight and a half years, and this is probably the worst that I’ve seen it.”

In Johnson’s office at 719 Massachusetts St., she connects with children through play therapy.

“My office is actually a playroom,” she said. “Play is the child’s language and the toys are their words. Children many times cannot verbally express what they are dealing with, so play, art, and other experiential activities help them to share what they are struggling with.”

Just hours before our interview, Johnson had hired a third therapist to work at her private practice because of the increased demand for services. 

Scarcity of specialists

Not many therapists in Lawrence specialize in play therapy, a form of psychotherapy that studies show yields significant psychological and emotional health benefits for children. The Association for Play Therapy’s website lists just eight provider names in Lawrence.

About 25% of children within any community, including Douglas County, have experienced trauma that could be processed through play therapy, said Anna Jenny, executive director of Positive Bright Start, a nonprofit that provides child care and pediatric therapy services. 

“There are many more children who have experienced trauma in Douglas County than we can presently serve or whose symptoms have not been identified,” she said. “The goal is to identify them early and get them the support they need so that the child can build resilience and more serious problems can be avoided later in life.”

Last year, Heather Fell searched for a play therapist for her oldest child after she and her partner divorced.

About this story

The demand for pediatric mental health services is on the rise. This article is part of a series examining the struggles some kids, teens and families in Lawrence and Douglas County have faced.

“There just is a pediatric therapeutic desert here,” Fell said. “I think that we see Lawrence as a bigger city than it is. It’s really a small town. And unfortunately, we are close to bigger places, but we just don’t have the resources that are needed to support our children here.” 

In pursuit of a therapist, Fell called and left messages. And called and left messages. 

“I was crying a lot because everyone was booked and everyone was referring each other to each other, and that’s great, but then they’re all booked,” Fell said. 

Fell tried to access services for her daughter from October 2020 through April 2021. In that time, she nearly decided to take her daughter to see a therapist in Kansas City. 

One day after being referred to someone — and being told there were no openings yet again — she snapped. 

“They caught me on a bad day and I unleashed on this lady, and she said, basically, ‘I recognize that we don’t have these resources and they’re in the highest need that they’ve ever been. I’ve heard that there’s this new lady. I know nothing about her. I don’t know if she’s accepting patients. But here’s what I’ve heard,’” Fell said. “So I was lucky enough to find a therapist who was quite surprised I’d even heard of her because she hadn’t really set up or advertised. And she got us in.” 

It had taken Fell seven months to find a therapist for her daughter. 

Bonny Greenlee is also learning how difficult it can be to access professional services. She said early last week, her son’s primary care physician gave her a list of pediatric mental health professionals. The first one on the list said they didn’t see children. She said another wasn’t taking new patients or referrals, and Bert Nash said it would be at least three weeks until they could see her son. 

Not wanting to wait three weeks, she decided to make an appointment for her son with a therapist at the Center for Family Healing in Lawrence. The counselors at CFH specialize in marriage and family relationships, but one of their therapists is able to see children, and he offers after school hours. Because this therapist is not certified to provide play therapy, Greenlee is still trying to connect her son to someone who is. 

Scheduling issues

Amanda Walters found a therapist who would see her daughter quickly — but not one who would take her insurance. And the hours the providers were available for appointments were during the day, while her daughter was in school, which meant taking her out early and possibly disrupting her learning outcomes. 

“I think that’s hard; you know professionals want a work-life balance, but then the kids need to be in school,” she said. 

Walters connected her daughter with a therapist at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in 2021. After three appointments, the therapist left Bert Nash for a private practice in Kansas City. 

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Walters continued to pay $125 out of pocket every few weeks for telehealth appointments with that therapist until recently. She decided to stop appointments, not because her daughter could no longer benefit from therapy, but because the cost, the lack of in-person care, and the scheduling conflicts were too burdensome. 

A guardian’s flexibility with scheduling can determine how quickly a child can get off the waitlist and into the playroom at Positive Bright Start, Jenny said. There are currently 13 children on the nonprofit’s therapy waitlist. 

“We try to get them in within a few weeks, but it depends upon the current intensity of the workload of our therapists, and the flexibility of parents with scheduling,” Jenny said.

A lack of available mental health resources can send more children and teens into crisis mode, inspiring them to seek emergency mental health services, according to Lynn Powers, director of inpatient case management at LMH Health.

Powers oversees the gold unit, which assesses patients experiencing suicidal ideation for severity of need.

“I think our biggest barrier currently is our community resources are overburdened,” Powers said. “If I saw somebody today, in the end, I couldn’t get them an appointment tomorrow or Monday. I mean, it may be six or eight weeks out. And so they do come back to the (emergency department) because they can’t get into the treaters in the community.”

Though many local private practices report being at full capacity, Bert Nash is able to take new pediatric patients.

Note: This article has been updated to correct a quote attribution.

Get mental health help in Lawrence

These resources are available 24/7 if you or someone you know needs immediate mental health help:

• Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center: 785-843-9192
• Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ (formerly Headquarters): 785-841-2345
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Dial 988; veterans, press 1

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Chansi Long (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, has a bachelor of science in mass media from Baker University and a master’s in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She’s been published in the Washington Post, River Teeth and Brevity. She was honored to be named Kansas Writer of the Year by the Winfield Arts and Humanities Council in 2016 for her essay “Lovesick.”

Read more of her work for the Times here.

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