The reality of mental health treatment – and the biggest challenge our prisons, law enforcement, and health care providers face today – is keeping patients safe in state or private mental health beds while implementing proper medication regimes, initiating proper therapy, providing community support, and developing a plan for ongoing therapy.
Estherville, Iowa Police Chief Brent Shatto told Congressman Steve King of Iowa’s fourth district that mental health was one of the greatest challenges to law enforcement in the town. Officers sometimes wait for hours in the ER with individuals in mental health crisis as hospital staff work to place them in one of only 64 state psychiatry beds. But wait. Current Department of Corrections inmates already occupy two-thirds of those beds, leaving only 24 public and just over 700 private beds for approximately 123,000 Iowans living with a major mental illness.
Mental health care has always been the ghetto of health care; that fact is not unique to Iowa. Now as people who were recently living in a residential facility return prematurely to the community, they will require all the support available, and even that won’t be sufficient to handle their needs.
The community-based supports that struggled to meet the needs of people living in the community, who were relatively stable on medications, therapy, and alternative treatments, will be unable to get help when they need it.
Those yet to be diagnosed, who are suffering from their symptoms, will be told it could be six months, or even longer, before they can see a professional.
Whose lives will be lost in this denial of critical care? How many will lose the lives, careers, relationships they had because they were able to manage symptoms with the help of their doctors and therapists, but now are turned away from treatment because their care team is overburdened?
It’s already broken, and now the pieces are spilling out all over in the form of more children acting out in class, more parents neglecting their children, more reports of suicide and substance use, more arrests, more acting out in pain.
In Estherville, a task force of several dozen is looking at the problem of children younger than 13, who cannot be helped in the juvenile justice system, but who have severe issues of attacking teachers and other students, acting out of what appears to be trauma of unknown origin, or which could well be organic, physical brain illness which, if it was treated like any other illness, could be improved greatly with the treatments now available.
Where will these children be in a few years if there is no help for them now?
I admit I had looked at other things like hunger, homelessness, medical cannabis for the past while, which reduced my capacity for mental health advocacy. As an adoptee, I have had four parents. Three have died due in whole or in part to mental illness: my birth father due to schizophrenia, my mother who raised me from under-treated depression; she had a fatal heart condition, but chose her day, and my father who raised me from seasonal affective disorder, self-medicated, which developed into closet alcoholism.
While I’m part of a posse of badass advocates, including Andy Behrman, author of “Electroboy: A Memoir,” and single dad of two extraordinary tweens; Speaker/Advocate Gabe Howard, Laurel Roth Patton, John McManamy, who started McMan’s Depression and Bipolar Web before mental health websites were a thing, and who has authored a number of books between playing the digideroo, and others too numerous to list here, the death of Carrie Fisher has spurred me to do what I have talked about for years: develop media products of investigative and solutions journalism to at least suggest a future for Iowa and beyond.