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Iowa groups come together to organize a statewide mental health awareness event

Marcel Strauss
Disability Rights Iowa, with 24 other co-sponsors, organized a National Mental Health Awareness Celebration with a keynote speaker who identifies as a queer Latina. Organizers said this will have a big impact for Latino/a/x audiences and LGBTQ+ communities.

A coalition of groups is planning a statewide event Tuesday to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month. The organizers hope this hybrid event will push Iowa to be more cognizant of mental health.

Disability Rights Iowa and 24 other co-sponsors organized the event to celebrate May as Mental Health Awareness Month—a 73 year tradition on the national level. It’s the first time the event will be available to Iowans statewide both in-person and at six satellite locations, as well as a completely virtual option.

"It's really important...for us as an agency to do this event to grow our partnerships, grow our network within the state of Iowa," Disability Rights Iowa executive director Catherine Johnson said, "but also to really have an honest conversation about mental health and the barriers that individuals with mental health conditions face, both in Iowa and nationally.”

Johnson said a major discussion point of the event will also be detailing how Iowans with mental health concerns are protected under federal law, under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I know from the work that I've done it with mental health, and how people perceive it, that there is what I think is kind of a disconnect with mental health and the protections available under different federal laws," Johnson said.

The Office of Latino Affairs is one of the co-sponsors. Sonia Reyes, the executive officer, said she is proud that the keynote speaker Dior Vargas identifies as a queer Latina. Vargas is an award-winning mental health advocate with ten years of experiences in activism. She will share her personal story as well as other resources people can access to address mental health.

“The impact that is going to have in the Latino community here in the state is going to be huge because one, they're going to see one of their own. They're going to be able to hear the stories that they can relate to," she said.

Reyes said she hopes the event will be helpful for parents as well, to be able to look out for signs of mental health needs in their children and students.

"I can't even imagine the doors that Dior Vargas is going to open for even more conversations and more individuals reaching out for assistance to address either their or their family members' mental health," Reyes said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated mental health, putting further strain on young people, historically marginalized communities and the resources to address those concerns. Johnson referenced statistics that showed around 15 percent of adult Iowans experienced mental health symptoms in the past year.

Organizers, including Reyes and Johnson, said accessibility was a major factor to consider for this event. There will be Spanish and American Sign Language interpretations available.

"I feel like with this event, it's setting the bar for for all of us who are in charge of putting different events together, that there is a way. Now we have a way that we can get things done in an effort to be inclusive of more Iowans," Reyes said.

"I think we, in Iowa, are setting the stage for what it means to host a hybrid event, thinking through how do you be proactively accessible, and practically language accessible," Johnson added.

More than 100 people have already registered for the event. It begins tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. and runs through 8 p.m. There is no registration deadline, however there is a limit on the number of people who wish to attend the in-person event in Des Moines. The satellite locations will be located at:

  • Sioux City
  • Mason City
  • Dubuque
  • Davenport
  • Fairfield
  • Council Bluffs

The event will also be posted on YouTube for those who are unable to make it during the livestream time.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a non-life-threatening mental health crisis:

Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.
For deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing loss dial 711 followed by 1-800-273-8255.

Call Your Life Iowa: 855-581-8111
OR Text: (855) 895-8398

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines