October 01, 2019
Kelly Specht never thought her loved ones would be affected by mental illness. With no history of it in her family and no warning signs, she was stunned when her son, Carl, suffered a mental health crisis during his sophomore year at Kansas State University and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Although it can occur at any age, many are diagnosed in their teens or early 20s.
Carl, an industrial engineering major, was forced to take a semester off to pursue treatment. He later returned to school and graduated in 2013. After graduation, he moved to Hermosa Beach, California, to begin his career with a Fortune 500 company.
It wasn't until 5 years after its onset that he was negatively affected by his illness again. This time, his struggles were more difficult to treat.
A need for resources
Carl returned to Kansas City in need of treatment for his disruptive thinking and severe mood swings. Medical resources for his condition were scarce, and access to care in a crisis was denied. The laws regarding mental health services prevented his family from helping him, and his illness and the stigma surrounding it, kept him from helping himself.
"Because Carl was an adult, and even though he wasn't thinking clearly, we could not intervene in getting him the help he needed. It was heartbreaking for our family because there was nothing we could do," Kelly says.
After an intense battle with his illness and severe depression, Carl ended his life on June 23, 2017. The Specht family and everyone who knew Carl was devastated. The only ray of hope Kelly saw was in her husband, Bob. He said the family needed to bring mental health awareness to a stadium level because Carl would want us to help others who struggle.
In 2018, Carl's family started Carl's Cause, a 501(c)(3) to promote mental health awareness and fight the stigma that surrounds it. Because Carl was an avid athlete and very social, the organization focuses on raising awareness and funds through events Carl would have attended, such as tailgates at sporting events, golf tournaments and an annual dinner/dance and auction.
"Mental illness affects 1 in 5 people. It touches everyone. We want people who are struggling, or know someone who is, to know that it is ok to talk about their mental health. Our goal is to share this message with people inside stadiums where all demographics meld, such as families, work friends, church groups and social groups. The message needs to be consistent and continuous," Kelly says.
Giving back to those in need
Shortly after starting Carl's Cause, the Specht family learned about the development of an inpatient behavioral health program at the health system's Strawberry Hill Campus and knew they had to contribute. They met Chris Ruder, chief operating officer in Kansas City, and from there were introduced to several leaders at The University of Kansas Health System, including psychologist Greg Nawalanic, PsyD.
Through their fundraising efforts, Carl's Cause donated $100,000 to the behavioral health program to provide exercise equipment and other items needed for the care facility. Generous donations like this are especially important because of the multidisciplinary programs, therapeutic services and recreational activities the care team provides for adults with mental and behavioral health conditions.
"One of the unique things about our services at Strawberry Hill Campus is that we offer expressive therapies, including art and music. We have found that patients not only enjoy these therapies, but they also experience a shift in thinking and are more willing to engage in traditional therapy as a result," Dr. Nawalanic says.
Inpatient services are designed to treat people with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and other conditions. Patients have access to traditional and expressive therapy 7 days a week. Strawberry Hill Campus also provides an indoor and outdoor recreation area patients can use for exercise and yoga. Other services include healthy dining options, individualized treatment and access to expert care from our team of psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental and behavioral health specialists.
More hope for the future
Kelly believes that if a facility like the hospital at Strawberry Hill Campus and the care provided there had existed during Carl's battle with mental illness, he might still be alive today.
"Carl's life was not defined by his illness. It had a purpose. Mental illness can affect anyone, and mental and behavioral health programs like the one at The University of Kansas Health System need support so they can provide treatment for those who are struggling," Kelly says.
Dr. Nawalanic agrees. "The integration of behavioral health into the medical model is long overdue," he says. "That's why The University of Kansas Health System has taken steps to provide more inpatient psychology services for adults. We want to prevent other families, like the Spechts, from experiencing such a devastating loss."