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As The Pandemic Weighs On Children's Mental Health, Some Iowans Struggle To Find Help

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Marisa Howenstine
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The COVID-19 pandemic has weighed on children's mental health, and some Iowans worry the state's services still aren't enough to meet demand.

The pandemic has affected the mental health of Iowa's children, and some are still concerned two years after the creation of the children's mental health system, services are still falling short.

The COVID-19 pandemic had affected the mental health of many Iowans. This includes children, who have been deeply impacted by restrictions on their social life and stress their parents are facing.

Iowa established a children’s mental health system two years ago, but some worry services are still falling short, just as Iowa’s kids need more of them.

Johnston resident Janette Lems said the trouble for her kids really began when they started school last fall.

She said her 7-year-old daughter struggled with her school pod system, which limited her to interacting with just several kids who didn’t include her friends, while her 5-year-old son was displaying a lot of anger and aggression.

"We could not figure out what the meltdowns were and what the cause was, and took us a really long time to get his feelings sorted out," Lems said.

Lems said her daughter got help from a school counselor, who was able to work with her teacher.

At first, she tried teletherapy sessions for her son, but he couldn’t stay focused. So she sought out in-person play therapy instead.

"I called eight different places," she said. "I was told that they had no openings until May, and this was in January."

Lems said she was finally able to find an independent therapist near her home. The sessions have greatly helped her son, but she said the experience was eye-opening.

"I had no idea that there were so many troubled children that were, you know, at the age of five, six that were having to seek out mental health," she said.

Long-term data on kids’ mental health during the pandemic is still scarce, but some early figures suggest it’s taken a toll.

According to the CDC, mental health related emergency room visits increased 24 percent for young children and 31 percent for teens from March to October of last year compared to 2019.

"There seems to be just a lot more stress, sadness, anxiety and loneliness these days. But it’s not everyone," said Laura Fuller, a clinical psychologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

She said emotional reaction to the pandemic has really varied for kids.

But Fuller said the pandemic has clearly exposed the state’s dire need for more mental health resources. She said UIHC’s waiting list has stretched weeks — even months, at times — for children and families.

"When you think about the more rural regions of the state, the places that aren't close to big cities and higher concentrations of providers, it's even worse," she said.

The state legislature created the children’s mental health system two years ago to address this shortage of resources.

But Iowa’s 14 mental health and disability services regions have faced challenges setting up and funding the new required services using local property tax levies that are capped at different rates.

This week the state legislature voted to send a wide-ranging tax bill to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk that includes shifting the system’s funding from the regions to the state.

For some, like Darci Alt, that’s good news. Alt is the CEO of the Heart of Iowa region, which covers Dallas, Guthrie and Audubon counties.

"I've had the lowest levy in the state forever," she said. "And we were constantly having to worry about, 'would there be enough funding?'"

But Alt says she’s still concerned about long-term funding for the system. Current legislation only covers it through 2026.

Though Alt said despite challenges, her region has managed to get many services in place, and she said this past year, she’s learned many families just need help finding them.

"They'd make 10 or 12 calls, and they were never to the right place," Alt said. "And really what we can do for families in the children's system is be that first call, and help them to get where they need to be."

But some families say they need much more than that.

Des Moines resident Nina Richtman has had years of experience navigating mental health services. Her two adopted sons have anxiety and behavioral issues from childhood trauma.

Richtman said the pandemic was so hard on her kids, their therapists recommended they go into residential treatment programs. But she said it took months to find spots for them. In the meantime, she struggled to cope and plunged into depression herself.

"There never was any timelines, and there never was any certainty. So it was just hard to know," Richtman said.

"And so if you have a little bit of hope, sometimes you can make it a little bit longer, even if you're in a really stressful situation. But I think my hope just kind of ran out."

Richtman said she was eventually able to get spots for both of them in facilities hours away. She said they’re doing much better — and she is, too.