Opinion: Agreement on better mental health care for Iowa’s schools signals larger shift

Sarah Bogaards (Editor)

Mental health is an issue which has long been subject to societal attitudes, and I’m glad to say I believe American society is at a turning point in its views of mental illnesses and those who live with them.

Clifford Beers is credited with the first pointed effort to battle mental illness and stigma by founding the organization known today as Mental Health America in 1909.

Prior to this, he spent three traumatic years in several Connecticut psychiatric hospitals where he was a witness and victim of abhorrent conditions and maltreatment, and likely received very little effective treatment for his bipolar disorder.

According to Mental Health America, one of the organization’s goals is “to work for the prevention of mental illnesses and the promotion of mental health.” This objective is vital to mental health reform, and 2018 was a landmark year for it in Iowa.

The Des Moines Register reported that Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation to expand mental health resources for adults and children, and established a children’s mental health board which drafted a proposal by fall 2018. In late February some individual provisions became bills in the Iowa legislature.

No children’s mental health legislation in the past seven years has become law according to the Des Moines Register; and in that time the issue has unnecessarily escalated to a crisis in our state, thus drawing Iowans’ concern and support for the current reform efforts.
For example, the idea to regularly screen children for mental health issues with the ability to opt-out received almost 80 percent approval in a February 2019 poll published by the Des Moines Register.

I think it is undeniable that some support stems from the fact that Iowa’s mental health system is in crisis, and without the assistance of the wider and ongoing national conversation about mental health, I hesitate to say that that support would remain.
Mental health screenings for children is an important preventative step we need.
The proposal indicates a public acknowledgement of vulnerability, that anyone can experience mental health issues which may be temporary or long term.

In Beers’ case, Mental Health America says he was stable until his brother suffered an illness and died when he began experiencing episodes characteristic with bipolar disorder. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports about 18.5 percent of U.S. adults “experiences mental illness in a given year,” however, each of us has mental health to care for, not just those with diagnosed illnesses.
In a circumstance where much is still unknown about mental illnesses, the promotion of general self care in the public that much more of a priority.

Society needs to be educated on what personal mental health care looks like whether they feel fine or are in a poor mental health state.
Screening could also give children an opportunity to simply let off steam and express feelings they may not feel comfortable talking about with their parents.

From my experience with mental health issues I know how confusing it is to first comprehend the internal battle, then the difficulty faced when asking for help with something you don’t understand.
In a child’s mind, those feelings could be even more overwhelming and difficult to express; and by having a discussion, children can learn about what they are experiencing and that it is not something to be feared, also nipping stigma in the bud.

If screenings do become law, The elusive nature of mental illness should mean a careful approach to evaluation and diagnoses, but I also believe there is such a thing as too much caution possibly leading to misdiagnosed or overdiagnosed illnesses.
Like physical health screenings, those for mental health should be used as a monitoring tool, meaning action is not necessary for every child.
If children are educated from an early age about caring for their mental health, learn to recognize and discuss their problems, and are then supported into adulthood, society could see an overall positive impact in mental health.

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