Northwest Iowa Educators Talk Mental Health Issues, Solutions For Children

Oct 4, 2018

Advocates for mental health solutions in northwest Iowa believe there are a lot of barriers that need to be addressed as a state board works to draft recommendations for a children’s coordinated mental health system.

During a public comment session in Le Mars Tuesday evening, school district personnel and local Area Education Agency employees spoke about the challenges youth and families face in the region, including long commutes to mental health services and a lack of access to psychiatrists. The meeting was open to the public, but no parents came to speak to the board.

Le Mars Community Schools Superintendent Steve Webner said during the listening session that he has noticed a surge of students with mental health issues and the schools are “just trying to manage.” Fifteen years ago, elementary schools might have had between two to three behavioral students. He estimates there are about 18 at the elementary level.

“And what we’re running into is a situation where the school has done what we can, they’ve worked with the AEA’s, the AEA’s have done what they can and we have no other resources out there that can truly help these students to heal and that’s been a real problem for us,” Webner told Iowa Public Radio after the comment session.

Le Mars Community Schools has school therapists from Plains Area Mental Health Center, but funding for that is up in the air, according to Kim Keleher, the CEO of Plains Area Mental Health. She said the discussion has been tabled by the Sioux Rivers Mental Health Board.

Webner said he would like to see a greater collaboration between school districts and agencies in coordinating resources for students and families.

The group addressed the difficulty families face in trying to get help for their children, especially when staff is spread thin and resources are limited in and near schools.

Sharon Nieman is a parent to a special needs child in the school district. She could not make it to the meeting, but said Wednesday she wishes there were more psychiatrists in the area that specialize in multiple needs simultaneously.

“My daughter has learning disabilities as well as small physical disabilities as well as the mental health and it’s a complete package deal,” Nieman said. “If they have one stressor that bothers them and they can’t complete their day, then the other stressor goes up.”

Nieman said her daughter has been fortunate because of natural support and a Medicaid waiver that helps her access behavioral health intervention services and therapies, but children on private insurance who lack Medicaid don’t qualify for through a waiver and cannot get the same services.

“I think that’s a disservice to the children,” Nieman said.

The Children's System State Board will use information from the public comment sessions to draft a strategic plan, due to Gov. Kim Reynolds by Nov. 15. David Tilly, the deputy director of Iowa's Department of Education said unlike other committees that have assembled in the past to draft recommendations on a mental health system for children and disbanded aftewards, this board will make the recommendations and work to implement them.

"This strategic plan, by design, will require action on the part of the system," Tilly said.

Other public comment sessions are being held over the next week in Creston, Cedar Rapids and elsewhere. People unable to attend the sessions can submit comments online.

Updated at 11:20 a.m. An earlier version stated funding for school therapists in the Le Mars school district is going away, but Kim Keleher with Plains Area Mental Health said it has been tabled.