Mental illness continues to be one of the most misunderstood yet pervasive diseases in our country and our world, yet the number of providers available to treat those suffering from mental illness is woefully inadequate.

I would like to show you the depth of this problem by sharing some numbers and facts that relate directly to Iowa, in order to increase both knowledge and compassion. The information presented here is based upon the most recent data provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ (NAMI) National Report Card and the Des Moines chapter of NAMI.

In Iowa, one in five people experience some type of mental illness in any given year and one in 25 adults – or 127,000 Iowans - experience serious mental illness in any given year. Thirteen percent of youths age 8 to 15 live with mental illness, causing significant impairment in their day-to-day lives. The figure jumps to 21 percent in youths 13 to 18 - and less than half get help. Fifty percent of young people with mental illness drop out of school, the highest rate of any disability group. There were 447 suicides in Iowa in 2015 and 42,000 nationally. Within that number is the further tragic fact that each day in this country, 22 veterans complete suicide.

Our experience locally mirrors many of the statistics above. Given the scope of needs, how does Iowa do in meeting those needs? Again, using the NAMI figures, Iowa ranks 47th nationally for the number of psychiatrists based on population. Only 140 to 150 psychiatrists are available and seeing patients. The state is 46th in the number of psychologists and 44th in the number of available mental health workers. We are also ranked number 47 for in-patient psychiatric hospital beds, based on population. In fact, except for the metropolitan counties, the entire state is designated a mental health professional shortage area.

So the need is indeed great and the services available to meet those needs are dramatically inadequate. Not only does this reality cause much distress to the individuals and families seeking care, but it also results in this population ending up undeservedly in jails, juvenile detention centers, prisons and a variety of other places that make their situation even worse. This is particularly distressing in light of the fact that we have advanced our understanding of the nature of mental illnesses and now have treatment modalities that are effective and long lasting. How ironic it is that, given our treatment capabilities, we lack the physical and human resources in Iowa to deliver those services.

There are a number of ways that we can all work together to improve the current delivery system. Yes, more funding will help, but that funding needs to be specific and efficiently directed to these issues. The newly formed regions that combine the resources of Iowa's 99 counties into 15 regions is a good start in that it helps to bridge the gaps in services between urban and rural counties in the state. Public support for those regions will help to establish sustainable funding for developing new programs and expanding existing services across county lines. A good example of that is the opening this month of the new Assessment and Stabilization Center in Sioux City to provide crisis intervention service to adults in the Sioux River Region, which is comprised of Woodbury, Plymouth and Sioux counties.

Another way to address the lack of access to service is for the state of Iowa to undertake a major effort to promote the education and training of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals throughout the state. This should include providing loan forgiveness and financial incentives for practitioners to stay in Iowa. Over time, this effort will pay for itself by keeping highly paid medical professionals here who will also employ nurses and support staff in their business.

And, finally, the governor and Legislature need to create a system of care for children suffering from mental illness. It is repeatedly and correctly stated that the only prevention in mental health is early intervention.

Mental Health First Aid for Children programs, in-school therapists and access to a greater number of child/adolescent psychiatrists is absolutely necessary to help people avoid the even greater difficulty of recovery in adulthood without the basic fruits of a good education.

So thank you for reading this, and please consider contacting your local elected officials, your state legislators, our governor and our U.S. congressional delegation to voice your support for these ideas and programs.

Next week: Jim Wharton

A Sioux City resident, Jim Rixner is executive director of the Siouxland Mental Health Center, is a member of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission and is a former member of the City Council. He and his wife, Bernadette, are the parents of three adult sons and the grandparents of seven.


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