It was the first time I ever spoke about legislation on the floor of the West Michigan Annual Conference. As an introvert, I do not normally have a need to talk, but in 1997, after fifteen years of attending annual conference, I found my voice. We were discussing what benefits our conference health care plan would offer for mental health, and I had heard enough. Our family was struggling with mental health issues at the time, so I stood up and said, “I’ve been listening to many reasons why our conference cannot afford to add equal benefits for mental health as we already have for physical health. To me, this is not only discriminatory, but it also stigmatizes families who are dealing with addiction, depression, or other psychological illnesses. Will we have the courage to do what we need to do for our clergy families?” The conference voted to equalize benefits, and I went back to being silent.
Mental health is a significant issue in Iowa, although one might not think that from a February 27, 2018 US News and World Report, which honored Iowa as the #1 Best State in the US. The report noted that we usually think of Iowa as consisting of “corn, caucuses, and creative writing.” However, this report highlighted some real strengths of our state. We were #1 in infrastructure and broadband access, #3 in health care, #4 in opportunity, #5 in education, and #9 quality of life, leading to an overall #1 placement. Pretty encouraging, right?
Despite this honor, mental health services in Iowa were not addressed at all in the report. If they had been, the results might have been different. A 2016 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center ranked Iowa a dismal 49th out of 50 states in inpatient psychiatric hospital beds operated by the state (64 beds). The number of beds in Iowa has steadily decreased in recent years, culminating in a nearly 100 bed cut in 2014 when two Iowa mental health facilities closed.
Compounding the lack of inpatient beds is an increase in suicide in Iowa, especially in small farming communities. A United Methodist pastor of a rural, multi-point charge told me that in a recent year the first three funerals the pastor conducted were suicides of farmers. The suicide rate in rural America is 45% higher than in urban America. Depression often goes undiagnosed, especially in children and youth, the cost of health care is high, beds are often not available, and there are not enough mental health professionals to go around.
A poll taken earlier this year found that the top policy issue of concern to Iowans is mental health. In 2018 the Iowa legislature passed bipartisan legislation that has the potential to make significant changes in Iowa’s mental health system. These changes include required suicide prevention training for school employees, adding six regional “Access Centers” to provide 120 beds for persons in mental health or substance abuse crisis, and “assertive community treatment teams” that would assist those with serious mental illness to stay on their medication and continue treatment in their own community.
United Methodists in Iowa are doing their part to strengthen mental and emotional health in Iowa. In response to a resolution on Mental Health that was approved by the 2017 Iowa Annual Conference, we set up a Mental Health Task Force in early 2018. This was also in anticipation of continuing with our quadrennial emphasis on the Four Focus Areas of The United Methodist Church: Developing Principled Christian Leaders; Creating New Places for New Faces; Engaging in Ministry with the Poor; and Stamping out the Killer Diseases of Poverty, like Malaria.
The task force includes a lawyer for a healthcare organization; the pastor for our UM church inside the Iowa women’s prison; clergy who serve as counselors; laypersons who deal with mental illness within their families; a retired police officer who saw Iowa’s mental health system up close; a school teacher; and members of churches that have their own mental health ministry. Every one of these leaders is committed to improving mental health care in Iowa. This is the purpose statement that the Mental Health Task Force adopted:
Our purpose is to enlighten, encourage, and equip a network of United Methodists and others who are working to strengthen mental and emotional health in Iowa through unflinching, practical, transformative acts of engagement, caring and connection, including:
- within their personal relationships and circles of care
- within their own churches and communities
- through civic and volunteer roles, and/or
- by advocating for legislative change.
Knowing that mental health issues are a prime contributor to poverty, our task force began its work by offering two workshops at the 2018 Iowa Annual Conference. Both workshops were filled to overflowing, and a generous offering was received. As a follow-up, a series of Mental Health First Aid trainings have taken place in all of the districts.
So far, two hundred United Methodists in Iowa have been trained in Mental Health First Aid, which teaches individuals how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders in one’s community. Topics include role-playing, stigmas, responding to alcoholism, opioid use, cultural sensitivity, suicide, mental health and incarceration, and cooperation with the law enforcement community. The bishop, appointive cabinet, and district and conference staff will be taking the day-long course in February 2019.
Watch for the Task Force to reach out to Mental Health First Aiders and local churches to encourage a range of specific actions on behalf of mental and behavioral health. This will include hosting conversations about mental health and creating a culture of welcome for persons and their families who are dealing with mental health challenges. Other ideas include:
- Creating community coalitions of providers, police, judges, and others whose work intersects with mental health, to consider how we can do better
- Connecting interested persons with training to serve as crisis line advocates around mental health or suicide
- Advocacy at local, state, and national levels that will improve funding, access, and justice in the many ways that mental health intersects with public policy
The task force is also beginning to make connections with leaders in other states who are pursuing similar goals, so that we might learn from each other’s successes and efforts. If you’d like to know more or want to share your ideas, please be in touch with the Iowa Mental Health Task Force through the chair, Len Eberhart, at email@example.com, or with any of the leaders identified at the link above.
Corn, caucuses, creative writing, and mental health: they are all important to the state of Iowa. We will continue to improve in the area of mental health because we are committed to fullness of life for all people. And the Iowa Conference will continue to inspire, train, and equip volunteers because our faith compels us to advocate and take caring action on behalf of all of God’s children. Wherever you live and serve: how will you find your voice around mental health and substance abuse disorders? Let’s all work together!