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Schmidt sees mental health services as 'faith practically applied'

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The reasons why Matt Schmidt, winner of Bethel College’s 2011 Young Alumnus Award, decided to choose a service profession are not unique.

Schmidt’s parents, Deb and Don Schmidt, began their married life with a term in Bolivia with Mennonite Central Committee. Their children grew up in a home where their mother was a nurse and later a pastor (at First Mennonite Church in Hutchinson for more than a decade before becoming a chaplain at Kidron Bethel Village in North Newton) and their father a social worker (for most of his career at Prairie View Mental Health Services in Newton).

His parents, Schmidt said, “provided powerful early models of what it meant to live a life of service.”

What might be a bit more unusual about Schmidt’s story is how his experience with Mennonite institutions combined to produce what his former Bethel adviser, Professor of Psychology Paul Lewis, called “one of the best things Bethel can give back to the community.”

While at Bethel College, Schmidt played basketball, studied psychology and fell in love with history (as well as his future wife, Amy Franz). As a junior, he received his “formal introduction to the field of mental health” when he began working as a mental health tech on the inpatient psychiatric unit at Prairie View.

“This was a powerful and formative experience,” Schmidt told his Bethel audience at the Young Alumnus Award convocation March 14, “as I began to make the transition from what I was learning and reading about in textbooks to beginning to realize what it meant to actually sit with clients and their families in the midst of their pain and struggles.”

Prairie View also became the setting for an independent study that Lewis helped Schmidt put together and which became pivotal for Schmidt.

He built his study around “a therapy modality called ‘psychodrama,’” Schmidt recalled, “which was being led by another social worker, Paul Unruh. I was struck by the fact that Mr. Unruh rarely provided answers. Instead, he asked the most wonderful questions. I was hooked.”

Schmidt graduated from Bethel in 1994 with a major in psychology and a minor in history (the latter, he says, happened “by accident,” mostly because he enjoyed history so much he ended up taking enough classes for a minor). He continued to work at Prairie View until 1996, then left to attend graduate school at the University of Kansas. He earned a master’s degree in social work there in 1998, returned to Prairie View as the adult team social worker on the inpatient treatment team, and has never left.

He is currently director of Community Support Services (CSS), a program that provides community based mental health services in Harvey, Marion and McPherson counties to adults experiencing “severe and persistent mental illness.” In this position, Schmidt is the primary clinical and programmatic supervisor for Prairie View’s CSS staff.

Since 2007, Schmidt has also been director of Access/Emergency Services, which handles both initial admissions and intake as well as 24-hour crisis coverage.

Schmidt’s love of history likely is responsible, at least in part, for his dedication to Prairie View, and why he says he has “always felt drawn to the story of Prairie View, particularly the illustration of how one’s faith could be practically applied.”

He sketched a brief history of the organization in the Young Alumnus Award convocation. “During World War II, several thousand Mennonite and other conscientious objectors served as aides in state mental health hospitals,” he said. “Many of these facilities had deplorable and dehumanizing conditions.

“As a reaction to this, and out of a desire to change the standards at the time, Mennonite Central Committee organized Mennonite Mental Health Services to plan three hospitals.” These were Brook Lane Psychiatric Center near Hagerstown, Md. (founded in 1949), Kings View Mental Health Services in central California (1951) and Prairie View (1954).

“From the outset, there were innovations,” Schmidt said of this Anabaptist-Mennonite model of mental health services. “A value was placed on the therapeutic community.”

Within only a few years of Prairie View’s founding, “staff began making the shift from hospital-based care to applying principles they were developing to the broader community,” Schmidt said. “This emphasis was given a boost in 1963 with passage of the [federal] Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act. The intention of this act was to begin moving from primarily providing treatment in large hospital centers to local community facilities. This move was further solidified [in Kansas] in 1990 when the Mental Health Reform Act was signed into law by the Kansas governor.”

Looking over the history of mental health-care reform, Schmidt said, “by most measures, [it] has been a success.” Of course, there are also challenges, perhaps the most pressing being the budget crisis that Kansas, like other states, currently faces.

As a result, many mental health centers are “hunkering down,” Schmidt said. “Prairie View is saying this is the time to be more engaged, not less.”

Staff are encouraged to take statewide leadership positions (Schmidt has just completed a three-year term as chair of the state CSS director’s group) in order to have some influence on policy-making. In addition, the recently passed federal health-care reform act has “renewed interest around providing more comprehensive care, with an emphasis on better coordination between primary health care and behavioral health care,” Schmidt said. Prairie View and Harvey County Health Ministries, which provides health care for the uninsured and underinsured, are in the initial stages of a pilot project in this area, he added.

Though his job “involves statistics, state contracts, supervising staff, budget concerns and percentages,” in the end it is “intensely personal work,” always returning to people’s personal stories, he said.

“I believe the work of mental health to be sacred,” Schmidt said. “[As mental health workers], we are invited into the intimacy of relationship – into hurt and brokenness.”

“What makes the hard days worth it?” asked Bethel student Taylor McCabe-Juhnke.

“In any helping profession, in anything that matters to you, you have to set boundaries, to realize where being caring, empathetic and compassionate ends,” Schmidt said. “You can’t take on everyone’s pain – doing so doesn’t remove it from one person, it means that two people have taken it on.

“A lot of what we do is foundational, it’s a process, it takes time,” he added. “I may never know what I did to effect change and I have to accept that I may never know. I might say something to a client 87 times and they don’t get it and then someone else says it once and they do. I was laying a foundation until finally they were ready to hear.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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