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Iowa launches mental health and suicide prevention campaign for children

A screenshot of Iowa Departments of Human Services and Public Health's Your Life Iowa program for children's mental health.
A screenshot of Iowa Departments of Human Services and Public Health's Your Life Iowa program for children's mental health.

Iowa officials have launched a new ad campaign targeted at child mental health and suicide prevention, as they say the state is seeing an increase of younger children in crisis.

The campaign targets both adults and children and will run on social media platforms as well as more traditional media platforms, such as TV and streaming services.

The ads urge kids who are struggling to seek help and adults to reach out to kids who seem down or have symptoms of depression.

It directs them to the state health department's Your Life Iowa program, which has resources for mental health support.

Kelly Garcia, the director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, said Iowa is seeing younger children — some as young as elementary school age — experiencing mental health crises.

"We're seeing really small children in distress, crisis. Mobile crisis response and crisis stabilization [have been used] for really little kids," she said. "And we're seeing really young children attempt and complete suicide, which is horrifying."

Research shows the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on both adult and child mental health nationwide.

Even before the pandemic, the rates of adolescents reporting having had major depressive episodes and children visiting emergency rooms for anxiety, self-harm and mood disorders had been increasing since the mid-2000s.

Garcia told IPR that experienced workers at DHS could see this child mental health crisis coming from the onset of the pandemic. She described it "like a tsunami."

"You see the wave rolling in, and it looks terrifying," she said. "And then you see it roll back out. And it looks even worse. And I think we're absolutely seeing that with families right now.”

Garcia said part of the state's campaign is aiming to provide direction and resources to parents who may not know how to address mental health with their children.

"Because there are spaces in parenthood that you're not really given those clear toolkits, and so this is something that we wanted to provide. So it's really practical conversation starters," she said.

Garcia said she's also focusing this summer on the shift in funding sources for the state's children's mental health system, which was signed into law three years ago.

Starting July 1, services for Iowa adults and children under the state's mental health systems will be paid for using state dollars, instead of funding through local property tax levies.

Garcia said she's not asking the legislature for more funding for the children's system this session, but said she's asking legislators to fund services that prioritize home-based care.

She said the state is also working on ways to recruit more mental health providers, as Iowa has long faced a shortage of mental health specialists, specifically for children, but she said there are still options for parents seeking help for their children, such as services through schools, the state's mental health and disability services regions — and telehealth.

"That's one of the...emerging trends that we saw during the pandemic that we absolutely intend to hold on to as a system," Garcia said. "It's opened up new platforms, and a level of expertise that we can access for rural Iowans, but urban Iowans as well."

If you are in need of help, contact:

-Your Life Iowa at 855-581-8111 (call) or 855-895-8398 (text).

-The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

-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