Yesterday, I joined NAMI Iowa at its annual Day on the Hill event, where mental health advocates from all across the state learned about proposed mental health initiatives, met with their lawmakers and urged them to take action.
For me, yesterday was a day of learning and inspiration. I didn’t just hear about different laws Iowa legislators are voting on — I heard the stories of everyday Iowans who either deal with mental health issues themselves or have loved ones that do.
As I’ve said many times before, Iowa has many problems when it comes to mental health care.
One specific problem that affects many Iowans with mental health issues is called non-medical switching. This is when an insurance company changes (or “switches”) the terms of their customers’ insurance plans so it may no longer adequately cover expenses for medication they need or may even force them to choose a different plan altogether that would cover it.
Threase Harms, president and CEO of Advocacy Strategies, explained how there are currently efforts to curb non-medical switching and ensure patients can continue to receive medicine that works for them at an affordable rate.
One gentleman I spoke with attended the Day on the Hill had personally felt the effects of non-medical switching. He was there advocating on behalf of his wife, who relies on medication for her mental health condition.
Another problem with mental health care access in Iowa is location. Mental health hospitals in the state are few and far in between, especially for Iowans living in rural areas.
Rick Shults, Mental Health and Disability Service Division Administrator for the Iowa DHS, and Sheriff Jason Sandholdt from Marion County, spoke about a proposed Iowa mental health care service plan that was created and recommended by the Complex Service Needs Workgroup.
The plan, which I’ve written about in a previous post, calls for the creation of more mental health treatment centers that would be spread out across the state, thus lessening the burden of small ERs and bigger state hospitals that aren’t properly equipped or don’t have space to accommodate mental health patients. These treatment centers would specifically be meant for individuals with complex mental health or substance use disorder needs.
One of the most impactful moments during the program was when Tammy Nyden, a Grinnell College professor (but most importantly, a mother), explained the need for more mental health care and treatment for children in Iowa.
Nyden shared the story of her own son, who suffers with mental health issues. One day, Nyden received an email from one of her son’s teachers saying he had explained to them, in detail, his suicidal intentions. Not only did the teacher wait until eight hours after the incident to tell Nyden, but the teacher was later reprimanded by school administrators for wasting time on a student who, in their view, was merely seeking attention.
And Nyden’s son isn’t alone.
About 80,000 children in Iowa have some kind of mental health condition, and about 40,000 have a serious mental disturbance. Yet according to data Nyden presented, only about 1,200, or 1.5 percent, actually receive mental health services. On top of that, such services for children are chronically underfunded, unorganized and are in constant danger of being cut.
While at the Capitol, I had the opportunity to meet briefly with state Sen. Julian Garret and Rep. Scott Ourth, who both represent Warren County, as well as Sen. Tim Kapucian and Rep. Dave Maxwell, who represent my hometown of Grinnell.
All four lawmakers listened to my concerns about mental health in Iowa and my desire to see them support the proposed pieces of mental health legislation. While all seemed supportive, only time will tell if they and the rest of their colleagues on the Hill decide that mental health is an issue they will take seriously this year.