Iowa families dealing with mental health issues have hit the breaking point. The closure of mental health institutions and the privatization of Medicaid have put increasingly unbearable strain on many seeking help. That frustration is quickly spilling over into the political realm.
Around 500 people showed up to a loosely-organized mental health rally in downtown Des Moines this weekend. It was all organized on Facebook by two young men who faced serious mental health struggles themselves and were fed up with Iowa’s low rankings in health services, especially the state’s 50th rank for amount of mental health beds. None of the usual major Iowa advocacy organizations were involved.
The turnout was particularly impressive for a purely grassroots event both for the size and depth of the emotion involved. People drove in from all corners of the state – from Cherokee, Mt. Pleasant, Shenandoah, Strawberry Point and everywhere in between.
Nearly everyone had a story to tell and were eager to voice it. And many of them were starting to point their anger directly at elected politicians, Terry Branstad most of all, along with the Republican members of the legislature.
Mich Grauberger, a 19-year-old from Marion attended with his mother. A month and a half ago Grauberger experienced a mental health crisis that required hospitalization. The only mental health beds available at the time were in Council Bluffs. He had to be driven the four hours from the Cedar Rapids suburb to Western Iowa for treatment.
“I’ve been struggling with mental health issues since I was 12. It’s completely absurd the lack of funding – I’ve had to go really far away because of the lack of beds,” Grauberger said. “State funding paid for a cab from Council Bluffs to Marion, transportation there and the hospital stay. It’s absurd. It’s not acceptable what we have right now. The legislators need to get off their butts and do something.”
His mother, Karla, agreed on the need to pressure local lawmakers to improve funding.
“The only way we’re going to get the changes we need is to put legislators into office that care, who will act on their responsibility to take care of their constituents,” she said.
Branstad’s major role in closing the Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda health facilities, along with pushing the state into the messy, chaotic Medicaid transition infuriated many of those at the rally.
“This is a Governor I voted for, and I’m very concerned about the lack of leadership on this issue,” said Ron Bode, whose daughter had to spend a night in an ICU room during a crisis because there were no mental health beds available. “He’s out of touch with what this issue is. We live in a great state, but to be 50th in anything, especially something that is personal to us, is unacceptable.”
“Obviously they didn’t have their ducks in a row before they did this MCO stuff,” said Deanna Moore of Ankeny, angered by the Medicaid privatization. “The change with the MCO program is literally making people sell their farms, take out loans, put up their property to pay their employees. It’s causing kids to not get treatment. The insurance companies when you call someone are from out of state … Something bad is going to have to happen before [my son] gets treatment and he’s 18.”
Tranquillity, a woman from Rowland in Story County, wore a shirt to the rally with the names of six of her friends who had committed suicide, most of which suffered from a mental health issue. She’s been volunteering for the local Democratic Party in the hopes they’ll improve mental health services.
“I feel that Branstad was an idiot for closing down these facilities,” she said. “When someone goes in after they’ve tried to commit suicide and they’re released in three days, that’s just barbaric to me. They get their stomach pumped with that charcoal stuff and three days later they’re released. How does that help? It’s all about the money.”
Others have been motivated by their personal experiences to run for legislative offices against incumbent Republicans.
Carrie Duncan is running for House District 84 against Republican Dave Heaton, the district that covers Mt. Pleasant, where the state mental health institute was closed.
“We all feel like Heaton shirked his people down there and voted for closing the facility again,” Duncan explained. “People are realizing that the people chosen to represent them are not doing their jobs at the cost of the people.”
Mason McCoy of Cherokee was encouraged to run in House District 3 against Dan Huseman after seeing what his mother dealt with during her over 40 years working at the Cherokee institute.
“Mental healthcare is a very big thing for us and our governor has just decimated our public mental health system,” McCoy said. “And the private system just can’t keep up. We really need to stop closing facilities. Locally they turned half of the Cherokee mental health institute into a prison for the sex offenders … We have Plains Area Mental Health in our area, but that’s an outpatient facility and they just can’t keep up. It usually takes weeks to get appointments. Even then they can barely scratch the surface of what can be done.”
Others were simply dismayed at what they saw as a governor who didn’t realize the full impact of his decisions. Many noted that Medicaid privatization was taking a serious toll not just on the patients, but on the morale and business of the health providers.
“I think what our governor is doing, taking away all these services, I don’t think he realizes how much we really need them,” said Andrew Goulette, who recently left a job at Methodist West Hospital. “I’m already seeing there’s more people quitting, there’s more turnover, business is starting to go south. Medicaid privatization is just messing everything up.”
Those issues are causing and exacerbating other problems within the community, including child abuse and homelessness.
“I see how they spill over into other areas, such as crime, homelessness, child abuse and domestic violence,” said Lynnette of Winterset, who works in the nonprofit field. “If you focus on that end, you pay less on the other end.”
“The services are very lacking, and it’s a common denominator in the child abuse that we see,” agreed her friend Terri, also of Winterset, who works in child welfare services. “The services aren’t available. People who have very severe mental health issues don’t have access to doctors.”
Those attendees who work in the health services fields often mentioned how the justice system is now forced to care for many with mental health issues.
“We see a lot of profound mental illness, but many of it is from substance abuse,” explained Ellen Folkers-Jenkins of Des Moines. “They end up in jail instead of getting the services they need. I worked with a paranoid schizophrenic for a very long time, and he ended up going to jail because they didn’t know what else to do with him. There was no place for him to go.”
Kim Seratt of Dawson brought her son Sam with her. She’s had frustrated social workers tell her that if she wants help for her son, she should call the police.
“I know first-hand the crisis of having a lack of mental health beds,” Seratt said. “My son was in crisis last year and spent three days in the ER, was denied a bed. This happens over and over again. The only way people are getting help is through the penal system, and that’s really not help.”
Suicide and suicide attempts were all too common a part of many rally-goers’ stories. Ross Trowbridge of Des Moines brought a sign with him to explain and raise awareness about borderline personality disorder, which he’s suffered from for years. He explained that there’s virtually no residential treatment in Iowa for the disorder, and no FDA-approved medicine to treat it, despite nearly 4 million people in America diagnosed with it. That’s led to particularly high rates of suicide among those affected.
“For a four-month period I was on the phone every day,” Trowbridge recalled. “You’re not going to meet a person who has made as many phone calls crying and begging for my life … The most I could be offered was out-patient therapy. And when somebody’s spending four hours a day looking on Internet forums for ways to commit suicide – that’s how I lived – outpatient services is not enough.”
For others, an improvement in Iowa’s services is simply too late for their loved ones.
“I lost a nephew to a bipolar situation, he ended up committing suicide,” said Steve Bobenhouse of Clive. “I also have a friend whose son did the same thing. I don’t think there is a mental health structure in Iowa. How does anyone in small town Iowa find some place for help? I think it’s terrible what’s the governor’s done. I blame him.”
A group of a dozen attendees wore t-shirts with the words “Ask me about Steven.” Laura Harreld of Strawberry Point, Steven’s mother, fought back tears as she explained how her son’s struggle with bipolar disorder ended in his suicide.
“Steven is my son. Today would have been his birthday,” Harreld explained. “Two years ago he ended his life. He spent a lot of time trying to get help and his insurance didn’t cover his medication and got very expensive. He had two little girls and had to spend funds elsewhere. So he self-medicated with alcohol and whenever he did he got in trouble. He was caught up in the criminal justice system. It was really hard for me to breath just driving into this city because I’ve been to the courthouse so many times. The judge did not want to lock him up, but the prosecuting attorney thought it was necessary because of the war on drugs … Let’s get some help to the people out here. [The governor] needs to use some funds for education of young people to get into psychiatric programs.”
The attendees marched from Nolen Plaza downtown up to the lower steps of the Capitol where the organizers, Jack Harper, 21, and Zach Campbell, 19, addressed the gathering. They both shared their stories of their own battles with mental illness and how they were able to improve with better treatment (watch some of the video here).
They also noted how surprised they were by the turnout, originally thinking they’d be happy to have 50 people show up.
“When Zach and I found out that Iowa is ranked 49th in the nation for mental health care we became really infuriated by it,” said Harper. “It’s something very important to us and that we’ve benefited from care. The next week we saw some stories that showed us 50th in the nation. He called me the next day that we should hold a rally for mental health care. So he created this Facebook page to network with people.”
They’ve since spoken with some state legislators who want to help find solutions with them, though only one currently-elected official was on hand at the rally.
Much of the success of the event – especially to draw in so many from far corners of the state – was thanks to a growing number of Iowa Facebook support groups where people are sharing their stories about their mental health experiences. The intensity and passion is clearly there and growing rapidly with every news report of Iowa’s poor mental health standings. Republican legislators who failed to stand up to Governor Branstad’s actions are likely increasingly vulnerable to voter backlash that’s threatening to boil over in November.
by Pat Rynard