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STATE OF MENTAL HEATLH: more Iowans struggling, youth mental health worsening, state reevaluating funding system

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(KWWL) – We've all felt the stress of the pandemic, including our kids. COVID interrupted their schooling, their routines. Data shows more children are being given mental health care and overdose deaths from opioids are on the rise.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports 40% of US adults are dealing with some sort of mental health due to the pandemic. An Oxford study also projects that 1 in 3 COVID-19 survivors will develop a mental illness.

“Just the slow recovery and anything that causes that among of physical dysfunctionality can have dramatic impacts on people's mental health,” said Tom Eachus, the executive director of Black Hawk Grundy Mental Health Center.

Many of those coming in for treatment have dealt with a lot of internalized anxiety, says Eachus. Much of their concerns center around their health, the health of loved ones, and their own income.

"At least reach out, don't let those things fester,” he says.

In Des Moines, state lawmakers continue to debate the next budget and a major sticking point has been mental health funding. Iowa is currently the only state to fund its mental healthy system and services through a local property tax.

"We think that this is the right time to really make sure that we have a sustainable system for the mental health services that we provide to Iowans across the state," said Iowa's Governor Kim Reynolds.

This week, lawmakers continue work on a tax plan proposed by Governor Kim Reynolds that she described as a compromise. The plan would include shifting funding for mental health services from the 99 counties to the state.

State Republican Speaker of the House Pat Grassley supports enhancing the state's mental health system, including addressing a need in uniformity of services, but worries efforts to shift funding to the state level don't have a safety net in place if the deal goes south.

"I think the best word we use is guardrails, to make sure that we don't end up with a situation where we have a program that's growing out of control, and then we can't fund and maintain that level of service,” Grassley said.

The Iowa Senate moved forward on the proposal from Governor Reynolds.

Peggy Huppert, the exccutive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says funding from a county level isn't necessarily bad because it offers a sense of local control. However, that doesn't mean she thinks things are fine the way they are.

“There needs to be more accountability and more uniformity throughout the state,” Huppert said.

Huppert believes there should be some sort of state oversight for Iowa's 14 mental health regions to ensure that services are offered in a uniform manner. She adds that funding is an issue, but not because it comes from the county.

“Large metro and growing counties, like Polk, have been stuck for seven years, they have not been able to raise their levy,” Huppert said.

The county property tax rate remains capped at the same level it was in 1996. So, that rate has not kept up with population growth in Iowa's urban areas which often see higher utilization of mental health services.

“The cases of coming to the emergency department for psychiatric concerns have really started to skyrocket,” reports Chris Latta, an Emergency Care Director for MercyOne.

Latta said they've seen a wide range of children and teens coming in for mental health issues. The advocacy group, Mental Health America, shows that youth mental health is worsening.

“We're coming out of the pandemic and moving back to a more in-person and structured system, its a big change. And that change is a shock to the system,” Latta said.

Without friends or teachers, Latta says many students lacked their typical coping mechanisms.

"We are now seeing kids every day in the ER," said Dr. Peggy Nopoulos, the head of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, sees a similar trend among adolescent patients.

Nopoulos and others at University of Iowa Healthcare are brainstorming ways to address the mental health needs, like creating a crisis stabilization unit for specifically children and developing a separate emergency room for mental health issues, something that's still in the idea phase.

Many of the challenges facing mental health can be traced back to stigma.

“Mental health does not get the resources that other areas of medicine get. It doesn't get the insurance coverage,” Dr. Nopoulos said. “It really is very broad and deep, the stigma."

About 5.3 million Americans with a mental illness are uninsured, according to Mental Health America.

There's also the stigma surrounding those who deal with addiction, which is defined as a disease by the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Provisional CDC data from last year, which is still being measured, shows the US on track to see more than 90,000 deaths from opioids, which would be a new record.

Dr. Nopoulos draws a comparison to the Vietnam War, and the public outcry over the nearly 60 thousand American soldiers killed overseas.

“We've been surpassing that every single year and now probably this year double. So why do we as a nation not cry out and say, 'This is an injustice! Save our people! Save our people!' It's cause of stigma.”

Too often addiction is treated as a poor choice someone makes, according to Nopoulos, but she argues it shouldn't be because of physical differences in an addict's brain.

Another issue that plagues mental health providers is the lack of new providers.

"'We have never seen demand for psychiatrists this high in our 30 year-history,'" Dr. Nopoulos said during a recent webinar, quoting a recruitment firm that projects a national shortage of psychiatrists of 16,000 by 2025.

She notes a partnership with UI's Carver College of Medicine and the state has improved their psychiatry residency program.

At the start of 2021, Governor Reynolds announced in her Condition of the State address she would allocate 30 million towards mental health over the next two years.

Critics fear that money will likely go fast with the mental health systems current challenges.

TREATING AN OVERDOSE: The Iowa Department of Public Health shares some information on what to do if someone you know is dealing with an overdose.

Black Hawk Grundy Mental Health Center information can be located here.

Resources at the University of Iowa can be found here.

MercyOne offers mental health services, more details can be found here.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please seek help.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be found here or by calling 1-800-273-8255.

Author Profile Photo

Taylor Vessel

Multimedia Reporter

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