The headlines for Iowa’s mental health care system the past few years have been rough:
But headlines obviously pale in comparison to the daily struggle those facing mental health issues live with everyday. So too for those who work to care for them. Those who live in and around Independence know the problem all too well. That’s where one of the two remaining state-run mental health institutions operates. Many are worried what will happen to the Independence and Cherokee centers if Republicans take complete control of Iowa’s legislature.
State Senator Brian Schoenjahn, who represents Buchanan and Bremer counties, as well as parts of Fayette and Black Hawk, has fought the reduction in Iowa’s mental health services every step of the way.
“We are in the middle of a mental health crisis in Iowa,” Schoenjahn says. “Governor Branstad unilaterally closed two of the state’s four mental health institutions, and now we are 49th in the nation in beds. That’s wrong. We are leaving people out in the cold where they can’t get any help. That’s not the Iowa way.”
The frustration over Iowa’s situation has begun to boil over in recent years, with impromptu rallies being held and online support networks forming to discuss the difficulties Iowans face. Many have shared stories of how they’ve had to drive to the other side of the state for an open mental health bed.
For voters around Independence, the issue comes down to local jobs as well.
“Closing the MHI in Independence would make this crisis even worse,” Schoenjahn says. “It would make it almost impossible for folks with the most severe mental issues to find care, because the alternatives just don’t exist yet in Iowa. In Independence, the effects would be particularly worrying. The loss of that facility means the loss of those jobs, in addition to the beds.”
The lack of beds and staff can make it a much more dangerous job for those caregivers. Three staff members at the Independence facility were injured by the same patient in recent weeks, putting two of them in the emergency room.
“The issue of understaffing permeates too many of our state facilities,” said AFSCME Council 61 president Danny Homan in a statement on the incident . “Whether prisons, mental health institutes, or resource centers, putting staff in harm’s way simply because we are continually understaffed is unacceptable.”
On other issues at the statehouse, complexities abound over who’s to blame for this poor Iowa ranking or for that policy failure. On the issue of mental health, however, it’s much more clear cut: Governor Branstad unilaterally closed two institutions and Republican legislators shot down efforts to keep them open. Schoenjahn voted for the bill in 2015 that would have mandated keeping the institutions operating until a comprehensive and suitable alternative was created. House Republicans refused to take it up. Three patients died shortly after their transfers to new, less-equipped private care facilities.
If Schoenjahn’s opponent, Craig Johnson, emerges victorious it would likely give Republicans full control of the entire Iowa state government. That one-party rule would mean less funding for mental health services, more problems for local police who essentially have to take on the handling of those people and the potential closure of the Independence facility. Reelecting Schoenjahn would ensure checks and balances on the excesses of Governor Branstad’s mental health decisions. It would also mean sending back a man to the Iowa Senate who has stood up for his district in tough fights and who is able to still work across the aisle.
“We need to take mental health seriously, and the legislature must take action to make sure everyone who needs help in the state of Iowa can get it,” he says.
by Pat Rynard