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Making Iowa No. 1 in Mental Health

According to a recent report, it is a good time to be an Iowan.

The U.S. News and World Report’s named Iowa the best state in the country in its annual Best States ranking. The report looked at criteria such as infrastructure, education, health care, crime, economy, opportunity and quality of life, all of which Iowa scored well in.

While this may be good news for Iowans, it’s worth pointing out one thing the ranking did not address: Iowa’s mental health care system. The report ranked Iowa No. 8 in “mental health,” but that metric only looked at percentage of Iowans who had reported having mental health problems; this neglects the status of mental health services available in Iowa.

The No. 1 state ranking also coincides with a recent survey from CareerBliss which named Des Moines the unhappiest city for workers. CareerBliss obtained the results from employee reviews of their workplaces and evaluated factors such as workers’ “relationship with their boss and co-workers, their work environment, job resources, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture, company reputation, daily tasks, and job control over work performed daily.”

Granted, this finding is just one of many findings about Iowa’s capital city, and uses different criteria than that of U.S. News.

According to Mary Bontrager, executive vice president of talent development at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, Des Moines has been highly ranked by companies such as Forbes for being one of the top cities for business and careers. Bontrager also said the Partnership has also conducted surveys which found Des Moines residents mostly reported a positive experience living and working in the city.

Regardless of how Des Moines fares in surveys or polls, Bontrager agreed it’s important to create an environment conducive to positive mental well-being. “If people are not satisfied in life in general and spend a lot of time in our workplaces, that can create issues of stress and other things,” she said. “So, it is very important that we have a community that looks at the well-being of the individual and workplaces that look at the well-being of individuals.”

This point then begs the question: What is Iowa doing to address mental health concerns?

The fact is, Iowa has consistently been ranked as one of the worst states for mental health care. Actions from the state government have made mental health services more difficult to access in certain areas. For example, in 2015, the state closed two of its four mental hospitals and therefore significantly reduced the number of psychiatric beds for Iowans.

A 2017 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center gave Iowa a D- grade for its mental health bed shortage as well as its unorganized system of treating inmates with severe mental illness. The report said in 2016, Iowa ranked last of all states in terms of psychiatric bed availability, with only 1.2 beds per 100,000 adults; this is a far cry from the national average of about 12 beds per 100,000 adults.

The shortage of mental health treatment options is particularly burdensome to law enforcement officers who regularly receive calls from people in need of treatment.

Approximately a third of inmates in Iowa jails need mental health care, not incarceration, according to the Globe Gazette in 2016. The story cites Sheriff Dennis Conard, who said about 38 percent of people jailed in Scott County have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Conard, along with his law enforcement colleagues, agreed that better mental health services would reduce the total number of incarcerations in the state by connecting people with the treatment they actually need.

NAMI Iowa’s Executive Director, Peggy Huppert, said in a recent op-ed to the Des Moines Register that law enforcement officers have become essential advocates for better mental health treatment options “because they deal with it on a regular, if not daily, basis.”

Fortunately, measures to reform the mental health system in Iowa are in the works at the Capitol.

The Iowa House recently approved House File 2456, which would, among other things, expand mental health services by creating six “access centers” which would benefit individuals experiencing a mental crisis but who don’t require hospitalization. It would also call for community-based treatment services such as “assertive community treatment teams” to help people with severe mental illness avoid hospitalization.

Another proposed bill lawmakers are considering would require Iowa teachers to receive suicide prevention training in order to renew their teaching licenses. Given that Iowa’s current mental health system is mostly geared toward serving adults, having teachers trained to spot warning signs of suicide in their students would provide at least some help to Iowan youth who may be struggling with mental health issues.

Although these and other proposed mental health laws are just first steps, we are hopeful they will help create a better mental care system that works for patients, law enforcement and health care providers alike. With these, and other needed changes to the current mental health system, Iowa could be on its way to eventually boast a No. 1 status in mental health.

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