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COVID-19 stress puts further strain on Iowa's mental health resources

The 100-bed Clive Behavioral Health center opened in February 2021. The center's website advises those experiencing a psychiatric crisis to go to the nearest emergency room.
Natalie Krebs
The 100-bed Clive Behavioral Health center opened in February 2021. The center's website advises those experiencing a psychiatric crisis to go to the nearest emergency room.

For Lauren Welter, it makes sense as to why she’s seen more demand for her mental health services during the pandemic.

"People are trying to work and they're home with their kids, and they can't go off and do the things that they might do to fill themselves up," she said. "It's just never ending stress."

Welter is one of the few licensed psychologists in Monticello, a town of just under 4,000 in eastern Iowa.

She said the unpredictability of the pandemic has affected many of the farming community’s residents.

"One of the factors that is just so predictive of mental health distress is feeling powerless, feeling hopeless, feeling helpless, feeling powerless," Welter said. "And there are a lot of parts of this that are out of our control."

A growing body of research backs this up. The COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely tough on people’s mental health.

The percentage of adults reporting symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder jumped from 11 percent in the first half of 2019 to 41 percent in January 2021, according to Centers for Disease Control data and a U.S. Census survey.

This increased need for help has spurred some emergency services, like Iowa’s COVID Recovery Program, which provides services like free virtual counseling, personal support and engagement activities.

Karen Hyatt, the emergency mental health specialist at the Iowa Department of Human Services, is managing the temporary statewide program operating off a FEMA grant.

Hyatt said she works with about 60 staff members across the state from different backgrounds – everyone from teachers to licensed therapists - to get Iowans extra help.

But she said reaching every corner of the state has been challenging. It's the first time Iowa's had a FEMA grant that covers the entire state. Usually it's just for several counties affected by a disaster, she said.

"There's certain counties, very few people take advantage of it. And I think in part that's on us, because we haven't reached all of those areas so that they know it's there," she said. "We try but, you know, it's really hard to get the word out to all these different populations."

The struggles facing Iowa’s COVID recovery program mirrors larger ones the state has long been facing getting Iowans adequate help.

In recent years, lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at creating a statewide framework for adult and child mental health services.

But Peggy Huppert, the executive director of NAMI Iowa, said it’s taking too long to get some vital services running - like access centers, which provide short-term care to those in crisis.

"We were supposed to have six access centers, across the state, serving Iowans, so that they didn't have to go more than 90 minutes…by July one of last year, and that did not happen," she said.

Others said the new state-mandated services don’t address their community’s needs.

"We still need places that for law enforcement - that aren't the local emergency room - that when somebody is in truly a mental health acute state or crisis, that we can take them and they at least get an evaluation or 24-hour stabilization," said Jason Sandholdt, the sheriff of Marion County.

Sandholdt said his department continues to encounter people needing crisis intervention on a near-daily basis.

Concerns like this have caught the attention of lawmakers, who have introduced bills this session aimed at creating more crisis beds, as well as increasing the number of mental health professionals and Iowa’s Medicaid reimbursement rates.

But experts say addressing mental health care gaps requires thinking outside the mental health box.

Nicole Summers-Gabr, an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, said leaders also need to consider removing less obvious barriers to care, like broadband access, so in areas with few providers, people at least have the option of teletherapy.

"When you're not able to offer any kind of in-person services, and that's the only option, then people could go months and months and months without getting any kind of treatment," she said.

Summers-Gabr said another issue is the vast shortage of child care, which deters some providers from being able to practice in areas that need them the most.

If you are in need of help, you can contact the Iowa Warm line at 1-844-775-9276 the Iowa Concern hotline at 800-447-1985 or visit the Iowa COVID Recovery site.

Para obtener ayuda en español, llame al 531-800-3687.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter