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When Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System Collides

A great executive board for a non-profit organization is made up of constitutents from different backgrouds, career paths, have varied interests and expertise. We are proud to say the NAMI Iowa board fits this description. The two characteristics that bind our enthusiastic board together are:

  1. Every member has a mental illness or knows a close family member or friend with mental illness.
  2. Every member wants to see the stigma of mental illness eradicated and the mental health system in Iowa improved upon.

Jim Romar, one of the newest members of our board, is no exception to this rule. Jim grew up on the East side of Des Moines, escaped for a while to serve in Vietnam and then returned to serve as a police officer in West Des Moines. After 30 years, he retired, but couldn’t get away. Romar now serves on the Teamsters Union, which represents about 1000 officers in Iowa.

Jim’s interest in serving on the NAMI Iowa board is connected to his time with the criminal justice system. As a cop and Teamster, he sees the direct correlation between mental health and criminal justice. Obviously there is a problem, but what does he want to do about it?

Jim says it starts at the local level. The state is trying to get out of the mental health system, and instead of fighting it, he wants to embrace it. Jim says this means getting local elected officials, sheriffs, board of supervisors and other smaller entities to care about mental health. Caring about mental health means acknowledging something needs to be done and finding viable funds to direct to the MHDS regions.

As a Teamster, Romar has contact with these officials on almost a daily basis. He hopes wearing the badge of NAMI Iowa will help bring his connections on board. But that’s not the only thing he wants to do.

Jim is a firm advocate for more training for police officers, starting at the academy level and being part of regular inservice training for veteran police officers. He estimated the Des Moines sheriff spends roughly $2 million per year handling mental health crisises; from transporting people across the state to overtime pay. From a dollars and cents perspective, that just does not add up. But on a deeper level, this signifies a lack of places to go and solutions for those suffering with a mental illness. At last resort, they have fallen into the hands of the criminal justice system.

It’s been a question on my mind lately if the world is getting harsher, more violent. In our own Des Moines streets, there are a record number of homicides in 2017. Around the globe, a new story of a terrorist attack plagues my social media newsfeed on a daily basis. I posed this question to Jim, curious about his take.

Without pause, he answered. And it was so simple: violent tendencies are going up, and coping skills are going down. Though a broad statement, it clicked with me. With more access to weapons, guns and an engrained culture of violence, coupled with a severe stigma of mental illness and a crushed mental health system; it’s no wonder we are seeing this on our television screens frequently.

Hearing devastating stories of mothers who cannot find a place to go to with her schizophrenic son or the man in crisis who cannot be honest with his family members about his illness because he is ashamed can wear you down, diminish any hope of improving the mental health system. To be completely honest, my candle was burning very dimly. I had witnessed too many people have the door shut in their face. But talking with Jim Romar relit that candle. It invigorated and inspired me. It reminded me there are people who are fighting the good fight. TMost importantly, it reminded me that change is iminent.

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