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‘We’re in crisis’

Mental health conversation packs Newton City Hall

If sheer numbers were all that Jasper County needed in order to make headway in dealing with mental illness issues, there would hardly be a need for doctors and hospital beds.

However, the lack of psychiatrists, funding and available beds were the main items of the discussion Tuesday when more than 80 people came to the City of Newton Council Chambers for a panel discussion on mental health issues, presented by the Newton Police Department and the Newton Daily News.

The large turnout shows how many county residents, especially in Newton, care deeply about the issues involved, and the desperate needs that must be met in order for improvements to happen. A lack of resources — and the lack of coordination or requirements needed to utilize existing resources more efficiently — were major topic areas during the discussion.

The event joined law enforcement, the mental health community and others with the general public for an open panel forum about mental health issues in the county. The Newton Daily News, along Newton Police Chief Rob Burdess, who moderated the conversation, asked questions of the panel and also asked some questions written by the public in attendance.

The panel included Leslie Ross of Optimae LifeServices, Marilyn Deppe of National Alliance on Mental Health of Jasper County, Capstone Behavioral Health Director Julie Smith, Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty, Lora Mattson of Skiff Medical Center, Central Iowa Community Services CEO Jody Eaton, Terry Sallis of Integrated Treatment Services and District Court Judge Terry Rickers.

The event was also broadcast live on local Mediacom cable channels. 

Rickers and Halferty provided the audience with a great deal of background about how mental health cases and other psychiatric issues are handled by the courts and by law enforcement.

“We must resist the inclination to criminalize mental illness,” Rickers said. “Complex problems require complex solutions, and we need the help of community and the state legislature to make things work better.”

While replying to questions, Rickers gestured several times toward State Sen. Chaz Allen, who was in attendance, as he reiterated the need for legislative solutions. In addition to more mental health funding and inpatient psychiatric beds for both acute and long-term care, Rickers called upon the state legislature to require care facilities to communicate with each other and accept patients if beds are available.

Halferty took the audience and panel through some of the types of mental health situations his deputies must face in the course of their work, and how mental health assessments work. Whether a person is transported voluntarily or involuntarily in a crisis, they are taken to Skiff Medical Center for assessments, even though the hospital is not a mental health facility.

Some of the questions from the audience ranged from what to do for senior citizens to how local health care agencies work with schools regarding young students who show mental illness symptoms.

Rickers had the answers for many of the audience questions. Regarding seniors, he suggested looking into a guardianship.

Each representative of a direct-care agency was asked by Burdess to describe the basic services they help provide. Sallis pointed out that while clinical diagnosis is key, it’s important for a patient’s support network to get involved in treatment and education.

“We use the DSM-V as one of our main diagnostic tools,” Sallis said. “But you don’t need a book to see how mental illness breaks apart families and relationships, or how substance abuse complicates things.”

All eight members of the panel described chemical dependency as one form of mental illness.

Jody Eaton explained her role as CEO of Central Iowa Community Services, a 10-county regional agency responsible for funding all mental-health services not covered by Medicare. She smiled when the topic of job placement and work programs were brought up, and went on to detail some programming progress in that area.

Deppe and others on the panel encouraged the community to join NAMI and attend its meetings, and learn more about some community activities, including a new “Mental Health First Aid” course.

Ross, of Optimae, encouraged the public to meet with their state legislators and personally explain their priorities regarding mental health.

The attendees included several local leaders, such as Newton Mayor Mike Hansen, along with others with ties to national government officials, such as Bri Dennison, local representative for U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack.

Burdess began the evening by saying he gained interest in mental health issues “out of frustration” with police being able to do little to help the mentally ill. He closed by pointing out there could be a similar conversation held in the future.

Halferty implored citizens to educate themselves about mental illness, and to get involved.

“We need your help,” Halferty told the panel and the audience. “We’re in crisis and we’re going to continue to be in crisis. We need to be open to change, and to innovative ideas, and we need to be asking ourselves, when we get up each day, ‘Am I doing everything I could be doing?’”

Contact Jason W. Brooks at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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