Lawmakers say the stories they’ve heard from patients and families are spurring some major reform of Iowa’s mental health care system.
Mary Neubauer of Clive wrote a widely read obituary for her son, Sergei, in late September after he took his own life.
“I’ve told legislators I’m not asking them to do anything for me. It’s too late for us and for Sergei,” Neubauer said recently. “…We have the opportunity to save lives. I want us to do better and I am not alone.”
Senate President Charles Schneider of West Des Moines met with Sergei Neubauer’s parents shortly after the young man’s funeral. Schneider said the meeting helped him better understand the limited options for Iowans who need in-patient treatment, but not in a hospital psych ward.
“That’s the problem that they experienced when they were trying to find help for their son,” Schneider told Radio Iowa, “so that’s how it helped me and I’m sure that story, if it helped me, probably helped every other legislator they talked to.”
This is how Neubauer explained her family’s predicament during a news conference in early March: “When it became obvious that Sergei needed long term, residential mental health care for his illnesses, it simply didn’t exist in Iowa and that is a horrible feeling.”
Neubauer will be at the capitol again this morning as Governor Kim Reynolds signs two bills into law. One will require school employees to undergo at least an hour’s worth of suicide prevention training each year. The other seeks to address flaws in the system for treating mentally ill Iowans. Representative Shannon Lundgren of Peosta emphasizes that both bills passed the legislature unanimously.
“It was because of those people back home that were pushing and saying: ‘We’re not getting the right services at the right time and we have nowhere to go,'” Lundgren told Radio Iowa.
Representative Timi Brown-Powers of Waterloo said during a meeting earlier this year she kept her head bowed as Neubauer spoke of trying to find treatment for her son’s depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
“Although we’re ripping a scab off of a wound, that’s how we get stuff accomplished down here and those stories do matter,” she said during an interview with Radio Iowa.
University of Northern Iowa political science professor Christopher Larimer said studies confirm personal stories rather than raw statistics are what move people to action.
“Where there’s any sort of human suffering or injustice, those individual stories are going to matter more,” he said.
Advocates who worked on these two bills say the next step is to lobby legislators to provide more money for the mental health care system.
“We’ve reached a tipping point on this issue,” Peggy Huppert, the state director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said at the beginning of this month. “Mental illness affects tens of thousands of Iowans and they’re raised their voices to say in unison: ‘More must be done.'”