By Christina Janney
After 45 years of service, High Plains Mental Health Center Executive Director Walt Hill will retire in January.
Hill, 71, has overseen tremendous growth at the mental health center as well as led innovation in technology that has expanded access to mental health services to thousands of rural residents of northwest Kansas.
Hill moved to Hays with his wife so he could attend graduate school at Fort Hays State University. He worked as an intern for mental health services while a student and then after graduation was appointed to work at Hadley Hospital in the psychiatric unit as a therapist.
“I had a personal interest in helping other people,” he said. “I had a brother who had mental illness for a long time.”
He pointed to a painting hanging on the wall of his brother and a group of his brother’s friends who supported him during his journey with mental illness.
On the front wall is a photograph of his mother with his brothers.
He said, “They grew up in very, very poverty and had to struggle, so there were some things I wanted to give back to them. I wanted to live a life of service and mission.”
Hill worked in management 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 Hayes and moved back within a year. Hill resumed work at High Plains Mental Health and eventually worked 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 a staff of approximately 150 people and a budget of an additional $10 million.
High Plains now serves 20 counties in northwest Kansas with approximately 100,000 people in its catchment area. It is the largest geographic area covered by a community mental health center in Kansas.
“Innovation in mental health is really important to meet the needs of people, particularly in marginalized areas, to ensure that we will be able to deliver the services that are needed when they are in rural areas. There aren’t a lot of providers and marginal areas,” Hill said.
As director of clinical services, Hill helped develop telemedicine services in the High Plains in the 1990s. The service was in its infancy at the national level at that time.
She said telemedicine has been absolutely critical to providing mental health services to rural Kansas residents.
Before telemedicine, psychiatrists would travel by car or plane to rural areas of the state. This severely limited the time physicians could spend with clients. The doctor could see patients only once a month at a remote location.
Hill said it was too expensive to charter a plane or pay a provider to drive for hours.
When the pandemic hit, Hill said telemedicine was a blessing. Some community mental health services were forced to lay off staff. Because High Plains already had a telemedicine system in place, its providers were able to continue seeing clients.
During Hill’s tenure at High Plains Mental Health, several other changes have occurred in the state’s mental health system.
Individuals who had mental illnesses were transferred from hospitals to community-based treatment. Screening was implemented to ensure that those who were admitted to hospital were required to stay there.
Many services were developed to keep people out of hospitals and their communities.
Due to costs, HazMed, as well as other hospitals across the state, were forced to close their in-patient psychiatric units.
To partially fill that void, High Plains Mental Health opened the four-bed Schwaler Center for psychiatric crisis intervention.
Hill said, “People have been saved from having to drive to Larned, they have been able to see a psychiatrist and have medication adjustments and they have a safe place to live. It has been a significant development.”
Even as he was preparing to retire, Hill was discussing with the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services the need to expand crisis services offered at the Schwaler Center in the area .
Psychiatric patients are kept in emergency rooms for hours to days while waiting to be admitted to state hospitals, Hill said.
High Plains also developed branch offices in Colby, Goodland, Norton, Osborn and Phillipsburg.
In the 1990s, High Plains developed housing for people who suffered from chronic mental health conditions. This included Wood Haven in Hayes and Colby House in Colby.
“I think we have better technology and science to treat people,” Hill said.
High Plains recently implemented a medication-assisted substance abuse program for people with opioid addiction. Clients receive both medication and counseling.
“We’ve had a dramatic but not substantial reduction in stigma,” Hill said.
She said there is more money available to treat people in their communities rather than in state hospitals, but maintaining the workforce of mental health providers remains a challenge.
High Plains now also offers assertive community treatment in coordination with the court system. This program works with individuals who may have been in and out of hospitals for court-ordered treatment. A team helps an individual achieve sustainability goals.
During Hill’s tenure High Plains Mental Health Center has become a certified community behavioral health clinic. The center received grants to start programs such as medication-assisted outpatient treatment and assertive community treatment and has been able to continue those programs through Medicaid funding.
High Plains became an early implementer 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 reached out to the farming community and now provides services for Spanish-speaking residents.
High Plains has expanded its services to include cooperative programs with all school districts except one in its catchment area. Students can attend sessions without leaving school.
“The goal is to keep people from falling through the cracks,” Hill said.
Hill said she hopes that within the broader scope of her career she has promoted the acceptance and importance of mental health services and made it easier for people in rural areas to access mental health services.
Hill said he stressed to his employees that he did not want a retirement party or “shenanigans,” as he called it.
“Recognition to me is important to recognize the lives we’ve impacted and the people we’ve helped, even the ones who don’t come back and say thank you,” he said. “They go on about their lives. That’s what’s important. That’s what’s meaningful to me.”
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