Friday, January 25, 2013

Improving Iowa’s subpar mental health services

By Nathan Davis

The American healthcare system is no stranger to criticism. With vicious political battles, talks of cutting important programs like Medicaid and the introduction of President Obama’s overhaul of the healthcare system, the tumultuous past few years have shown that many Americans are not happy with the status quo and it is indeed time for change. While there has been a tremendous effort to bring the U.S. healthcare system into the 21st century, a significant component seems to have gone unnoticed once again.

Mental Healthcare is among the most important medical resources our country has to offer and lawmakers constantly overlook it for both funding and development. While mental healthcare has made it into recent headlines, it unfortunately takes tragedies like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary to help people realize that we should provide better care to the mentally ill. If we want to effectively improve our healthcare system, we must see mental health as an important part of that system. We also need to constantly enhance the mental healthcare system instead of waiting to improve it when tragedy strikes.

Mental illness isn’t an issue that comes and goes with the times. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), over 25 percent of Americans suffer from a diagnosable form of mental illness every year. The NIMH also states that of the 33,300 Americans who die from suicide every year, over 90 percent have a diagnosable mental illness. There has also been a significant rise in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as the number of patients diagnosed with PTSD has now reached over 200,000, as stated by data from the Department of Veterans Affairs. While this increase can mostly be attributed to the growing number of military personnel afflicted by the disease, NIMH says that experiences such as violent assaults, terrorism, natural disasters and other catastrophes are a common cause of PTSD. Numbers like these are incredibly difficult to ignore and yet America still seems content to push mental healthcare to the sidelines.

Unfortunately, Iowa seems no better than the rest of the country when it comes to addressing this issue. In the most recent evaluation from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMH), from 2009, Iowa received a D for its mental health services. We were in good company though, as 20 other states received D’s and 18 states received C’s for their evaluation. In fact, zero states received an A and the only states to earn a B were Maine, New York, Oklahoma, Maryland, Connecticut and Massachusetts. It looks like the Midwest has fallen dreadfully behind when it comes to effective mental health services. So where has Iowa gone wrong when it comes to mental healthcare?

One of the more concerning issues is the rate of mentally ill patients admitted to our prison systems. According to a 2008 study by the University of Iowa, more than 90 percent of newly admitted prisoners had diagnosable mental illnesses, while another two-thirds had more than three disorders. Although this study is particularly disturbing, it is also the most recent study of its kind: meaning that we are failing to monitor this important issue.

Iowa is also struggling to fund mental health services, with The Sioux City Journal reporting that budget cuts are on the horizon. Public News Service stated in December that the Iowa Legislature has begun transitioning from a county-based funding system to a structure based on specific regions to help eliminate excessive overhead and costs. The problem is that the state has stopped funding county mental health services under the old system and has left the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) with distributing transition funds until the new system goes into effect. Thirty-two counties applied for transition funds from DHS, with only three being approved for these funds. Even after the new system has gone into effect, there is no guarantee that mental healthcare providers will receive the necessary funding.

According to the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Polk County will currently receive nothing from the transition fund and has been struggling to work with a state budget of less than $1.5 million for mental health services after being promised more than 10 times that amount in early 2012. Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston said her county would face a series of cuts if it received no support from the DHS transition fund. This series of cuts would only be an addition to the turmoil of a county that is already facing a dwindling mental healthcare system.

The state of mental health services in Iowa and around the country is turbulent at best, with a series of states seeing massive cuts when most states are already providing an inadequate amount of services to the mentally ill and disabled. Many mental healthcare providers and politicians see this issue as a devastating problem. State Senator Rob Hogg, who is chairman of the State Senate Judiciary Committee, has urged that Iowa revisit mental health services and consider further investments for the healthcare system.

“The clear opportunity for the Legislature in 2013 is to adequately fund mental health, and make sure we have the services,” Hogg said.

These decisions affect more than the mentally ill. According to NAMH, Iowa’s lowest grade in mental healthcare was for consumer and family empowerment. We are failing to offer vital information, promote and provide access to education or community support for the mentally ill and their families.

Every time we throw mental healthcare by the wayside, more families will have to face the frustration of dealing with inadequate mental health services or the horror of seeing mentally ill loved ones serve prison sentences. The crisis concerning mental health care is a peculiar one. While many Americans desperately need this care, they often cannot advocate for themselves when it comes to funding. The families of the mentally ill are definitely a great resource to advocate for a better system, but they need adequate and consistent support from their representatives in the Iowa Legislature.

Sadly, many citizens and politicians seem keen to forget the importance of mental health services until tragedy strikes, leaving us with an inconsistent interest on the subject. There are many supporters of mental healthcare reform. Along with politicians like State Senator Rob Hogg, the families, friends and even this system’s potential patients have made a strong effort to be heard on this critical issue. Now it is a matter of capturing the nation’s attention, and hoping that we can stay strong in our fight for a better system. With consistent funding and support, our mental healthcare system can improve the lives of many and bring Americans the change they have been looking for when it comes to achieving a world-class healthcare system.

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