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When mental health issues become visible, it often happens explosively and tragically. The shootings at Newtown and Virginia Tech, along with countless other deadly crimes, were carried out by mentally unstable individuals. About a year ago, an Iowa veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder was angered by two teens who were horsing around at an Ankeny McDonald’s. He shot and paralyzed one of them.

This is when, like a volcano erupting, mental health explodes across the headlines, only to eventually be replaced by some other disaster or scandal. But, as health care providers well know, the problem not only doesn’t go away, it’s getting worse. In fact, mental health is arguably Iowa’s top public health issue.

Unlike volcanoes, poor mental health and the dangers that can accompany it can be controlled. Where we are failing as both a nation and a state is in providing the right care in the right place at the right time.

Health care providers know this means many of the mentally ill end up in emergency rooms, but perhaps the most tragic evidence of failure are the number of mentally ill inmates in American jails. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition. That’s about two million Americans each year.

Here in Iowa, 123,000 people live with serious mental health issues and 80,000 Iowa youths cope with severe emotional disorders. Yet Iowa has fewer psychiatric beds and mental health professionals than nearly every state in the nation.

The idea behind the “deinstitutionalization” of the 1950s and ’60s, and more recently the closing of two Iowa mental health institutes, is that the mentally ill could be helped more humanely while living and being treated in community settings. But the community-based infrastructure was never really put in place or properly supported, so a huge number of those released never got the local help they needed.

Now the price is literally being paid, as Iowans in need of mental health services are churning through emergency rooms and sometimes in jails, places that are costly not only terms of real dollars, but in their inability to properly address an individual’s long-term mental health. Good intentions in the form of deinstitutionalization are not enough, but there are solutions.

This is why during the upcoming legislative session, Iowa hospitals will be advocating for increased behavioral health care access across the continuum to help relieve the systemic bottleneck that has patients languishing in hospital beds or in jails.

Iowa needs a full care continuum in behavioral health that includes sub-acute services, crisis intervention, crisis homes, nursing facility care and community-based services. With that infrastructure in place, more hospital inpatient psychiatric beds will become available for patients who truly need them, while patients needing less intensive care will receive it close to home.

Properly investing in these more efficient and effective resources now will put our state on a path to reduce behavioral health care costs in the long run. Otherwise, reliance on stop-gap measures will continue to extract a high price from both Iowans and Iowa communities.

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