Hays’ longtime mental health administrator recalls 4 decades of service

Walt Hill

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After 45 years of service, Walt Hill, executive director of High Plains Mental Health Center, will retire beginning in January.

Hill, 71, has seen tremendous growth at the mental health center as well as spearheaded technological innovation that has expanded the reach of mental health services to thousands of residents in rural northwest Kansas.

Hill moved to Hays with her husband so she could attend graduate school at Fort Hays State University. He worked as an intern for mental health services as a student and was then hired to work at Hadley Hospital in the psychiatric unit as a therapist after graduation.

“I had a personal interest in helping other people,” he said. “I have a brother with long-term mental illness.”

He pointed to a painting hanging on his wall of his brother and a group of his brother’s friends who supported him in his journey with mental illness.

On the opposite wall was a picture of his mother with his siblings.

“They grew up very, very poor and had struggles,” he said, “so there are just things I want to give back. I want to have a life of service and mission.”

Hill has worked in managing and developing 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 within a year, he was back. Hill went on to work at High Plains Mental Health eventually rising 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 about 150 people and an additional $10 million budget.

High Plains now serves 20 counties in northwest Kansas with approximately 100,000 people in its catchment area. This is the largest geographic area covered by a community mental health center in Kansas.

“Innovation is really important in mental health to stay in touch with what people’s needs are, especially at the borders, to ensure that we can deliver the services that are needed when there are not many providers in the countryside and the borders,” said said Hill.

As director of clinical services, Hill helped develop telemedicine services in the High Plains in the 1990s. The service was in its infancy in the country at the time.

He said telemedicine is absolutely critical to providing mental health services to residents in rural Kansas.

Before telemedicine, psychiatrists traveled by car or plane to rural areas of the state. This severely limits the time doctors can spend with clients. A doctor can see patients in a remote location only one day a month.

Hill said chartering a plane or paying a provider to drive for hours is prohibitively expensive.

When the pandemic hit, Hill said telemedicine was a blessing. Some community mental health services have been forced to lay off staff. Because High Plains 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 occurred in the state’s mental health system.

Individuals with mental disorders are transferred from hospitals to community-based treatment. Screening was implemented to ensure that hospitalized people needed to be there.

Many services have been developed to keep people out of hospitals and into their communities.

The cost has forced HaysMed, as well as other hospitals across the state, to close their in-patient psychiatric units.

To partially fill that void, High Plains Mental Health opened the four-bed Schwaller Center for psychiatric crisis intervention.

“People were saved from driving to Larned, were able to see a psychiatrist and had medication adjustments and have a safe place to be. That was a critical development,” Hill said.

Even as he prepares to retire, Hill has spoken to the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services about the need to expand crisis services similar to those offered at the Schwaller Center in the region.

Psychiatric patients are held in emergency rooms for hours to days waiting to be admitted to state hospitals, Hill said.

High Plains also developed branch offices in Colby, Goodland, Norton, Osborne and Phillipsburg.

In the 1990s, High Plains developed housing for people suffering from chronic mental health conditions. These include 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. Clients receive both medication and counseling.

“We had a dramatic but not enough reduction in stigma,” Hill said.

More funding is available to treat people in their communities rather than in state hospitals, but maintaining a workforce of mental health providers continues to be a challenge, he said.

High Plains also now offers an affirmative treatment to the community in dealing with the court system. The program works with individuals who may be in and out of hospitals for court-ordered treatment. A group helps the individual with goals for stability.

High Plains Mental Health Center became a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic during Hill’s tenure. The center has 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 has been 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 High Plains staff trainer program.

The center has also done outreach to the agricultural community and now offers services for Spanish-speaking residents.

High Plains has expanded its services to include cooperative programs in all but one of the school districts in its catchment area. Students can attend the sessions without leaving the school.

“The goal is to prevent people from falling through the cracks,” Hill said.

In the broader scope of his career, Hill said he hopes he has promoted the acceptance and importance of mental health services and made access to mental health services easier for those in rural areas.

Hill said he stressed to his staff that he didn’t want a retirement party or “shenanigans” as he put it.

“What’s important to me is recognizing the lives we’ve touched 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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