DOOLEY: Iowa’s mental health system severely broken

By   /   December 25, 2012  /   3 Comments

By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog

DES MOINES – As the debate over the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary continues, people inevitably will turn to gun control as the real answer.

But what if the much-maligned gun lobby is right? What if “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” isn’t just clever rhetoric but the truth? And if mass killers are just mentally ill people especially committed to doing harm to others?

What if the real problem underlying Newtown, Portland, Aurora, Columbine and too many others is a growing epidemic of untreated mental illness?

I became familiar with the mental health system more than a year ago in Iowa. At the time, I had no idea what I was up against.

REMEMBERING: A makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. (AP photo)

I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that went untreated when the insurance co-pays were too expensive. A few years later it resurfaced when I went through postpartum depression. I survived for a few months on antidepressants and anxiety medicine. But I quickly fell into a crippling depression and had anxiety attacks that continually choked me. I sat on the couch for hours, trying to think of reasons not to hurt myself.

My OB/GYN said she couldn’t treat me any longer; my case was too difficult. She sent me to the emergency room at Lutheran Hospital, the only facility in Des Moines with a psych ward. They turned me away, saying I wasn’t suicidal enough. I went home to my couch defeated.

From there I bounced to a partial hospitalization program run by Mercy Medical Center. Each day we were asked if we had suicidal thoughts. The man next to me seemed to go unnoticed as he answered “yes” each day. An elderly woman trailed off topic, talking about the depression that wrapped itself around her. The nurse would tell her to be quiet, it was time for the next person to read their sheet.

When I left the program after two days the nurse in charge called, accusing me of being stoned. Why else, she asked, would anyone be asleep at 3 p.m.?

I had to work to find the care I desperately needed at a time when I was least equipped to do so. I fought hard. Others haven’t been as lucky.

There’s the 21-year-old Iraq veteran whose father, the former mayor of Davenport, took him to an emergency room after a failed overdose. It was at least the third time he had tried to take his life. A nurse evaluated him without consulting a psychiatrist and determined he wasn’t a threat to himself, even though court documents show he told her he wanted to kill himself. Turned away, he hung himself just a few hours later. He left behind a fiancée and two young sons.

Another Iowan with bipolar disorder shot a Keokuk County Sheriff’s deputy. He was shot and killed by state police after a three-hour standoff.

Wherever they are in the state, Iowa’s mental health workers describe the same problems — a dwindling pool of resources that has left state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered. The cuts come as more people flood a fragmented system that varies in resources and services, depending on the county.

“It’s a big issue in Iowa, but there is not a state in the nation that doesn’t have these issues and concerns,” said Dawn Knutson, a family systems coordinator in Scott County. “Everyone thinks it’s not going to happen in my little town, but it can happen anywhere.”

Iowa earned a D for its mental health services in the most recent National Alliance on Mental Illness evaluation, which was released in 2009. It earned an “F” in consumer and family empowerment, one of four areas assessed by the national organization. The report estimated nearly 105,000 Iowans suffer from a serious mental illness at a time when there are only about 1,000 psychiatric beds among public and nonprofit providers. The shortage is so severe that the state has to ship its most needy patients hundreds of miles to other states for treatment.

Earlier this year, Iowa lawmakers passed a measure to reform the state’s mental health system. It does away with a county-by-county system, in which property taxpayers are on the hook to pay for the services, and replaces it with a regional state-funded system starting next summer. But it fails to address the state’s most pressing issues, including funding and a shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health workers, which leads to long waiting lists. It also lacks the outreach the mentally ill need to find their way to the proper resources.

The state has a long road ahead of it in making meaningful changes, mental health workers say. And time is something the thousands of suffering Iowans can’t afford. They need help now.

“It becomes difficult to get care because of the sheer numbers,” said Lois Brass, K-12 counseling coordinator for the Des Moines school district. “If it goes untreated, it only gets worse.”

Sheena Dooley can be reached at [email protected]


Sheena formerly served as staff reporter for

  • I’d be curious to know if psychiatric drugs were involved. Simply prescribing some chemical lobotomy isn’t necessarily the right treatment for mental health issues.

  • Frank

    But what if the much-maligned gun lobby is right? Ya’ but if there not right. Should we legalize rocket launchers and cannons because the extremist of the NRA want one? Get real…

  • AfricanRockFish

    I know all about Mercy’s PHP program. They’re a bunch of unprofessional hacks that treat every mental problem as if it has something to do with an addiction, and they truly seem to believe that serious mental illnesses need only be treated with antidepressants and staying active. The nurse in charge, Suzy, is a hack of the highest order who ALWAYS thinks that patients are addicts in disguise.

    I won’t get started on Broadlawns, the hospital in Des Moines with the most psych beds (the article is inaccurate, Des Moines has 3 facilities that have inpatient beds; less than 100 beds for a city of 500,000 people.) It doesn’t get any less professional, and they’ve actually let killers loose from their psych ward on their words alone!