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Candidates agree mental health should be a priority in Iowa

Gubernatorial candidates offer solutions to fix mental health crisis in Iowa

DES MOINES — While Gov. Kim Reynolds may have painted an optimistic picture about mental health care in the state of Iowa in a video address she delivered to open a forum on mental health in the state of Iowa, candidates from both sides of the aisle wasted no time in attacking the governor Tuesday night. The forum, hosted by Des Moines University, and organized by The Des Moines Register was attended by 13 candidates.

Numerous matrixes show the state ranks last nationwide in mental health care, and candidates laid the blame squarely at Reynolds’ feet during Tuesday’s forum, suggesting the state needs to do more to ensure quality care for Iowans struggling with mental health issues. Across the board candidates said they favored ending the privatization of Medicaid. A refusal to admit the state is facing serious issues is part of the problem, said Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines.

“The other real threat is simply mismanagement of our state’s budget,” Boulton said. “We are starving critical agencies and departments of the resources they need to provide services, I am tired of hearing we don’t have the resources to put behind this problem, we do, we just haven’t made it a priority.”

Candidates from within her own party didn’t shy away from taking Reynolds to task, with Ron Corbett, the mayor of Cedar Rapids, criticizing the closure of two state mental health hospitals in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. Corbett, a Newton native, said he’s concerned about how the state handled the situation, arguing the state’s existing system is too fragmented and lacks cohesion.

“The state may have saved some money on that line item, but the people didn’t disappear, they just got compressed,” Corbett said.

Candidates offered some solutions at Tuesday night’s forum, and while their points of view may differ, some, including Fred Hubbell and Corbett agreed the state needed to look at creating more community-based solutions, which would provide both long-term and short-term beds in facilities based across Iowa. Others, like candidate Jon Neiderbach offered tough criticism of the state’s decision to close two mental health hospitals.

“Closing the two facilities was a really stupid decision,” Neiderbach said. “There was no plan to meet that need.”

Finding a way to keep those suffering from mental health issues out of the state’s prison system is also a priority for candidates, with several citing studies that show more than half of the state’s prison population is suffering from some sort of mental illness. Diversion programs, which would help Iowans struggling with mental health avoid jail time, would also provide costs savings as the state struggles to deal with a growing budget crisis, candidates claimed.

“When the state says they’re saving money, they’re not saving taxpayers any money,” Steven Ray said. “Dealing with mental health crisis through the criminal justice system, that’s just ridiculous, law enforcement people are not mental health specialists.”

Also at issue for the candidates at Tuesday night’s forum was the state’s lack of a program to address the mental health needs of Iowa’s children. John Norris, who served as chief of staff under former governor Tom Vilsack, said the state lacks leadership at the top to meet the needs of children struggling with mental health, a statement echoed by other candidates at the forum.

“Leadership, that’s what it takes, we have a state that doesn’t have a plan,” Norris said.

As governor, Boulton said he’d also favor increasing funding to the state’s schools to provide teachers with the training they’d need to spot mental health issues in children. Honing in on funding for education has been a hallmark of Boulton’s campaign, and on Tuesday night he continued to push to make it a priority for the state.

“Children who are struggling need to know it’s OK to speak up, say something, and get the help they need,” Boulton said.

For Corbett, children’s mental health has been an important issue, and the Cedar Rapids mayor spoke about his experience when his mother became addicted to crack cocaine.

“When my mom was in her early 50s, she became addicted to crack cocaine. I was 32 years old, 33 years old and had to deal with that as a young adult,” Corbett said.  “… I wonder how I would have coped with it if I were 6, or 7 or 8.”

Corbett wasn’t the only candidate to get personal during the forum. Jake Porter, a Libertarian candidate from Council Bluffs, talked about his own struggles with mental health, including the admission that he’d contemplated suicide years ago.

“I went on a long drive and ultimately decided not to, it was a very spiritual experience,” Porter said.

While all 13 candidates were in agreement that the state needs to do a better job when it comes to addressing mental health issues, they often disagreed on the best approaches to meet the growing crisis in the state. In addition to creating space to house patients suffering from mental illnesses, the state also faces a shortage of qualified practitioners, particularly psychiatrists and psychologists. Many of the candidates said they’d support student loan forgiveness in order to encourage qualified professionals to relocate to the state, especially in Iowa’s more rural areas, where patients sometimes have to drive more than 100 miles to meet with a doctor.

Candidate Dr. Andy McGuire said as a health care professional, she’d like to see efforts that continue to support existing doctors while still providing incentives to encourage new doctors to being practicing in Iowa.

“They go into this because they have a passion for helping patients, we need to make sure that they don’t have crippling debt,” McGuire said.

For Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, who attended Tuesday’s forum, getting help for the providers and law enforcement officers who are on the front line of the state’s mental health crisis is a critical piece of the puzzle. Breckenridge, who retired from a 27-year career with the Newton Police Department, said he knows how tough it can be to respond to mental health calls.

“I want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can do to get individuals the help they need,” Breckenridge said. “It’s encouraging to see all these candidates here emphasizing that this should be a priority.”

Breckenridge said he shares the candidate’s frustration with Reynolds’ leadership, disagreeing with the governor’s rosy outlook on mental health services across the state.

“In our communities we see the struggle,” Breckenridge said. “I wish she saw it like the people here do.”

Michelle Smith, chair of the Jasper County Democratic Party, said she’s encouraged to hear that candidates for the state’s highest office are willing to devote time and resources to meet the growing mental health crisis in Iowa, and she’s hoping to see more options for community-based care, particularly in Iowa’s rural areas.

“We’re very fortunate in Newton, some people drive more than 100 miles to see a psychiatrist,” Smith said.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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