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League hosts discussion of recently-passed mental health legislation

The League of Women Voters hosted an event to discuss that Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed an executive order to address children’s mental health. Photo by Sarah Ruiz.

On Wednesday, April 5, the Grinnell League of Women Voters hosted an event to discuss the state of mental healthcare in Iowa at Drake Community Library. The event was held in response to recently-passed legislation meant to upgrade the state’s dismal mental health services.

The Iowa House and Senate both voted unanimously in favor of the Complex Needs Bill in a rare show of bipartisan agreement on a major issue, likely prompted by near-universal public opinion. A February Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, for instance,  showed that 73 percent of Iowans believe the mental health system in Iowa is in crisis or is a big problem.

The Complex Needs Bill provides for the creation of “access centers” designed to offer short-term care to those suffering from less severe mental health afflictions, freeing up long-term care resources. The bill will also create Assertive Community Treatment teams, which will interact with community members suffering from mental illness and hopefully reduce the need for hospitalization. 

Alongside the Complex Needs Bill, the House and Senate also passed a bill meant to reduce teen suicide by mandating that all Iowa teachers receive suicide prevention training.

In the wake of the new legislation, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced her intention to issue an executive order to establish a system for children’s mental healthcare, based on recommendations by the Children’s Advisory Committee. However, it remains unclear how that executive order would be carried out.

A press release from the Governor’s office hailed this legislation as representing “Iowa’s commitment to treating Iowans facing mental health challenges with compassion and dignity.” 

Others identified the legislation as a necessary but far from complete framework for mental healthcare reform in Iowa. 

Discussing this wave of recent actions was among the main goals of the League of Women Voters event. The League invited Professor Tammy Nyden, philosophy and Jody Eaton, CEO of Central Iowa Community Services, to speak. They discussed the new legislation and the broader state of Iowa’s mental healthcare.

In addition to her role at Central Iowa Community Services, Eaton is a member of the Complex Services Needs Workgroup, the group responsible for the basis of the Complex Needs Bill. She is also a member of the Iowa Mental Health and Disability Services (MHDS) committee, which will be tasked with transforming the bill into workable policy.

During the event, Eaton described the range of services the CICS provides for those mentally ill Iowans suffering from a lack of resources, specifically a lack of in-patient beds. She is excited for the opportunities this legislation creates, but cautioned that funding is yet to be solidified. Some point to Republican legislation slashing state revenue that has already passed the Senate as cause for concern, though the House has yet to pass a version of the bill.

Nyden, a philosophy professor at Grinnell College and the mother of a child with mental illness, is primarily an advocate for children’s mental healthcare. Iowa has no statewide children’s mental healthcare system, which, according to  Nyden, is a grievous mistake.

Nyden argued that the establishment of a children’s mental healthcare system is vital to long-term mental health success in Iowa. 

“We know that up until the mid-twenties is the best, most effective time to treat the brain, because that’s when it’s developing, when you can do the most good in treatment,” she said. “We are paying, right now for not having a child’s mental health system.”

Nyden accused state legislators of shying away from serious action whenever substantial amounts of money were requested and intentionally limiting the voices of reform committees, putting the health and wellbeing of Iowa children at risk.

Despite the newly-minted legislation, most of those in attendance seemed to reflect that opinion, expressing frustration with politicians they saw as shirking their responsibility to provide services to those most at risk, contradicting the narrative state legislators have spun of the Complex Needs Bill as a historic success in reforming Iowa mental healthcare.

Philosophy Professor Tammy Nyden and and CEO of Central Iowa Community Services Jody Eaton discussed mental health legislation passed unanimously by both houses of the Iowa legislature. Photo by Sarah Ruiz.
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