A key state official says ensuring mentally ill Iowans have access to the “full array of services” should be a top concern for policymakers.
“At some point we have to say: ‘What’s our priorities?'” Iowa Department of Human Services director Jerry Foxhoven said this week. “Nobody’s going to be able to just print more money, so you’re going to have to decide between one thing and another and it’s important for us to have this conversation to say: ‘This is a priority.'”
Foxhoven made his comments Tuesday during an hour-long “town hall meeting” sponsored by UnityPoint and WHO-TV. Foxhoven credited the parents of an 18-year-old who took his own life this fall for “stepping up” and focusing attention on “the gaps” in Iowa’s mental health care system.
“You know people will say to me: ‘Are you satisfied with where we are?’ No, I’m not,” Foxhoven said, “but I’ll never be satisfied if we have one person, if Mary and Larry — one couple like that — have a child or have a relative who doesn’t get absolutely everything they need, we shouldn’t be satisfied.”
Sergei Neubauer was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression after spending much of his childhood in a Russian orphanage. Mary Neubauer and Larry Loss of Clive adopted the boy when he was 10. This spring and summer, Sergei went out-of-state for long-term residential treatment because nothing was available in Iowa.
“We knew that we had to try and find something more than outpatient services again,” Larry Loss said, “and so were desperately searching across the country to find some place where he could go to get the care that we knew he needed.”
Since Sergei’s death in September here in Iowa, his parents have become public advocates for change — and now other Iowa parents in similar circumstances are seeking their guidance.
“I’m scared to death,” Mary Neubauer said. “I’m scared that other people are going to be hurt just like we were hurt. I’m scared that other people are going to end up without help, just like Sergei did, but I feel like I have to try to make a difference because if someone else were to be left in the situation that we were and I hadn’t tried to help, I could never live with myself.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 600,000 Iowans live with some form of mental illness. Dr. Steven Manler, the chief medical officer at Orchard Place — a facility that provides mental health services for children, said during Tuesday’s forum that you can’t just tell someone with a mental illness to “get over it.”
“The Midwest, the agriculture work ethic is fantastic for getting work done,” Manler said. “But when it comes to taking the time and sensitivity to work through emotional issues…just telling someone not to be anxious is fairly useless.”
Policymakers considering fixes for the state’s mental health care system are talking about adding more patient beds, but another goal is getting more psychiatrists and psychologists to practice in Iowa. Some local officials want counties to have more authority in distributing mental health treatment dollars.