A Dubuque County group focused on meeting local brain health needs has made progress on numerous fronts in the past year.

Those efforts are made particularly important as local leaders consider the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental health.

“We’re just at the tip of learning what some of these issues already are,” Chris Corken, a member of the Dubuque County Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities Stakeholders Committee, told members of the Dubuque County Board of Health on Wednesday. “We wish there was a vaccination for the brain health component of COVID. There isn’t.”

During a Board of Health meeting, Corken shared with members the progress her group has made on addressing local brain health needs. It was the first such presentation to the board in more than a year, since the COVID-19 pandemic took the bulk of the county-appointed group’s attention.

The Board of Health had just started to focus on mental health ahead of the pandemic. Members previously developed a substance abuse subcommittee that presented to the board regularly. That group evolved into one that also focused on mental health, but the group’s work faded quickly after the pandemic hit.

In recent weeks, board members have emphasized the importance of adding brain health to their agenda.

Corken has been at the center of a collaboration between the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and the Mental Health/Disability Services of the East Central Region to address these issues.

She told board members that a renewed focus on brain health could be more important than ever.

“What we’ll continue to find is the mental, psychological, brain health impact is going to be with us much longer than the virus,” she said. “Schools are talking about the possibility of (post-traumatic stress disorder) for families.”

And while the pandemic has put a spotlight on brain health needs, local work on these issues barely slowed in the past year.

Dubuque County officials recently started a program with Hillcrest Family Services in which Hillcrest staff provide “wrap-around services” for inmates in the Dubuque County Jail who have brain health issues that need addressing.

The program provides them with services while they are in jail and not eligible for Medicaid but also follows them after they are released in an effort to help those inmates avoid future incarcerations.

“The county now pays for that gap in funding that Hillcrest needed to provide that service without Medicaid,” Corken said. “It went into effect two months ago with obviously zero participants. We met about three weeks ago with staff at the program. They’re now up to 30, which is an incredible number.”

She also updated the board on a project aimed at helping law enforcement efficiently respond to crisis calls in rural areas.

“What we’ve done is take advantage of a program — we had a bid for it through the region, which I believe will be accepted — for a law enforcement liaison with the sheriff’s department,” Corken said. “It will be a mental health professional who is actually embedded in the department. They will have an office in the department, a designated car and radio. They will be called out the same time a deputy is called out.”

Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department and mental health region officials have been discussing the project for several months, based to some degree on existing programs in Linn County.

Local listening sessions also have highlighted deficiencies in brain health services in the agricultural community, Corken said.

“We are facing those struggles of how to reach them now,” she said. “We’ve been successful through the wives and mothers. We’ve been successful through the kids, through the schools. We are having trouble reaching much of the male populations.”

Following Corken’s presentation, Board Chairman Tom Bechen said adding brain health to the board’s areas of focus will be complicated.

“That’s like taking a drink from a firehose all of a sudden,” he said. “We got into brain health as a result of the opioid issues three years ago. We thought we were biting off a big piece then.”

Board members, though, promised to monitor the issues more closely.

Dubuque County Supervisor Ann McDonough said there might be hope of bringing the efforts to address mental and physical health together with future appointments to the board.

“The way our county structures this work is fragmented,” she said. “What our Board of Health does and our mental health does are different. We do have some candidates for the Board of health. We’ll be taking that up on Monday.”

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