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Iowa's lack of mental health treatment options discussed at legislative forum

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier - 1/27/2018

Jan. 27--WATERLOO -- With a focus on mental health, Friday's legislative forum at Central Rivers Area Education Agency spurred a number of people in the audience to tell stories about how the lack of treatment options in Iowa have affected them or their loved ones.

Heidi Noonan-Day told the story of her nephew being violently attacked while mowing the lawn by a man who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. "Please find money for treatment somewhere," she pleaded to the four Cedar Valley legislators in attendance.

The lawmakers -- all Democrats and in the minority in their chambers -- pointed out that they often don't have the power to get a hearing on legislation that would increase mental health treatment options.

"We have a priority problem right now at the Capitol," said Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo.

"There's very little we can do," added Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo. Reminding the audience that Republicans Thursday had proposed $52 million in mid-year deappropriations, he said "this is as good as it's going to get if they have their way."

Jeffrey Noonan-Day, Heidi's husband, said the man who attacked his nephew had been in the courts multiple times, but his mental disabilities weren't dealt with. "It angers me that we don't prioritize this," he said. "We need to identify what is a must and what is a want."

"One thing that we have to identify is early intervention," said Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo. If behaviors are identified and treated in elementary school-aged children, they may not end up in the criminal justice system as adults. "They actually do, once they're incarcerated, get better because they're treated."

The prevalence of people with mental health problems in Iowa's jails and prisons was addressed at the beginning of the forum by speakers who kicked off the event.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said 60 to 80 percent of the beds in the county jail are filled by people who are mentally ill. Tom Eachus, director of Black Hawk-Grundy Mental Health Center, said it costs $54,000 a year to house and treat a person with mental health issues in jail or prison.

"My bed and breakfast is not intended to be a mental health hospital," said Thompson. "We are doing more and more because the state is doing less and less."

Kim Jensen of Cedar Falls said her teenage daughter, who is severely mentally ill, typically gets discharged to go home following incidents where she is hospitalized. Although she has at times been placed at mental health facilities out of state, that option isn't available in Iowa. "There's absolutely no place for them to go," said Jensen, of the state's mentally ill population.

Brown-Powers noted that sending Jensen's daughter to an emergency room or sending her out of state for treatment is more expensive than providing the service in Iowa. "Really, this makes no sense to anybody and I'm absolutely livid we have bills in the House and Senate, and they refuse to bring them to committee," she said.

Several audience members expressed disappointment that the metro area's Republican legislators hadn't attended the forum. One person even suggested everyone send an email to them noting they had been missed at the event.

"We're trying to make this system better, but the barriers and challenges are in Des Moines at the state level," said Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls. Pointing to other states that have more effectively dealt with mental health problems, he noted that this does not have to be a partisan issue.

Eachus said the Coalition to Advance Mental Health in Iowa, which is made up of 125 agencies across the state, has developed a draft plan to make needed changes.

"We redesigned the system four (or) five years ago, and unfortunately we made the system worse," he said. "Adding more beds is not enough. We need a system overhaul."


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