Iowa mental health groups push, hope for more funding

Police and county jails have been forced to pick up the slack

By Jacob Peklo | jpeklo@weareiowa.com

Published 07/26 2016 10:41PM

Updated 07/26 2016 10:41PM

DES MOINES -  The state once had mental health facilities in all 99 counties. Now, it’s down to two state run facilities, and it’s putting tremendous strain on law enforcement to pick up the slack.

Peggy Huppert is in her first year in charge of NAMI, a mental health advocacy group.

"There's no doubt that we need changes to our mental health delivery system in Iowa,” said Huppert, the executive director for NAMI. “Unfortunately, we're ranked last in a number of areas."

With last year's closures of two state run facilities, only Cherokee and Independence remain open, although the governor has talked about closing those as well to save money.

"There's bound to be things that fall through the cracks,” said Huppert. “Police do have a difficult job. The jails and prisons have become the mental health treatment of last resort."

Huppert says one out of every five Iowans will have a mental health crisis each year, but now only 34 beds are available statewide to help.

That's why she's been working with local police to build up jail diversion programs for mental health patients, including a mobile crisis intervention unit.     

"They'll come to a scene, if they're comfortable with the person, they'll take them to the hospital sometimes,” said Sgt. Gary Lang of the Urbandale Police Department. “If we have to go, they end up helping get us out of there a lot quicker than it used to be."

Still, Huppert says about a quarter of the inmates in Polk County are suffering from some mental health disorder, and in Dallas County it's caused the jails to overcrowd.

"When you have somebody who is committing crimes because their mental health issues or is out of control, you have someone who encounters them and they have no choice but to bring them into the jail,” said Darci Alt, CEO for mental health and disabilities for the Heart of Iowa.

County officials say as a result, they're sending away between 12 and 18 inmates a day to Story County. Most of the time, those inmates do not have mental health issues, because they would rather treat them on site. In Story County, for example, they use telepsychiatry to help treat patients.

It's why police and mental health professionals are hoping there will be more money to help people before it's too late.             

"Too many of the people dealing with mental health issues end up in the jails when there should be hospitals or other avenues for them to get the treatment that they'll need,” said Lang.

Huppert says about 180,000 Iowans have serious, lasting mental health diagnoses. She believes that could lead a greater homeless population, if the issue is not addressed.

Huppert added one program she'd like to see get implemented in more places is a prescription treatment program for patients who leave the program. She says that makes a big difference for patients who are finishing up their course. 

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