In 2018, Iowa lawmakers and Gov. Kim Reynolds made monumental strides in the area of mental health.
Acting with unanimity and listening to the voices of Iowans in pain, the Legislature passed a measure to fill in gaps and provide a safety net in the state’s mental health system. The plan embraced the work of a group of mental health stakeholders who researched and debated for months until reaching a recommendation that the state establish regional access centers.
When the governor signed off on the legislation, mental health advocates hailed the move as a huge win, though everyone knew there was more work to be done.
Then, in 2019, work began anew — this time with progress made in the area of a children’s mental health system. Again, advocates were pleased with the effort, but they also showed concern because the establishment of the system came without state funding attached.
That, all agreed, would be rectified in 2020. It started with Governor Reynolds’ Condition of the State speech a year ago, in which she outlined a plan to shift mental health funding to the state by way of a 1% sales tax increase. This would come in tandem with a reduction in property taxes through the Invest in Iowa Act. The plan was pegged to generate $80 million that could be poured into much-needed mental health services.
And then came the dominant force of 2020, COVID-19. Suddenly, any growth momentum in the state screeched to a halt. Money the Invest in Iowa Act was supposed to bring in dwindled. Before long, the legislative session was suspended, and only critically mandatory work got done.
Meanwhile, the need for mental health services was only exacerbated amid the pandemic. That need continues.
A recent virtual meeting hosted by Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque allowed local advocates to discuss brain-health needs they see in the region. Advocates described longstanding challenges such as limited access to services in rural communities as well as the massive disruption the pandemic has caused in the lives of school-age children. Educators and other stakeholders described an “exponential increase” in youth counseling needs.
Adults are similarly in crisis, facing unprecedented isolation, vital concern for their own health and safety and that of those they love, financial difficulties and job insecurity. In 2020, 1 in every 5 Iowans reported being impacted by heightened mental health issues amid the pandemic. At the same time, state mental health leaders say Iowa ranks 48th among its peers for the number of mental health providers available.
The list of businesses, organizations and groups negatively impacted by COVID-19 is nearly endless. The Iowa Legislature will no doubt hear many compelling stories this session from Iowans who are hurting and in need. But the need for funding the reform of the state’s mental health system cannot be put off.
In the spirit of the triumphant effort to work toward mental health reform in 2018, lawmakers must keep the momentum going by supporting the state’s system through funding.