Iowa Ideas
Iowa Ideas

To provide a nonpartisan, statewide learning experience

designed to explore the key questions and big ideas that will shape the future of Iowa.

Iowa Ideas

Experts: Overcome mental health stigma by talking and listening

Panel: Having 'uncomfortable' conversation could save a life

Oct 3, 2019 at 9:40 pm
    Executive Director of NAMI Iowa Peggy Huppert responds Thursday to a question from the audience during the mental health in young professionals session of The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas symposium in downtown Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

    CEDAR RAPIDS — Stigma surrounds mental health because nobody is taught how to handle sadness and pain and the resources are difficult to access. But people sharing their experiences is the only way to bring about change and help those suffering.

    Speaking Thursday at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas symposium, Mary Neubauer said the discussion about mental health and suicide may be “uncomfortable,” but the lack of resources in Iowa pushed her to talk about “my inspiration” — her 18-year-old son, Sergei, who died by suicide in 2017.

    Sergei was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression and severe anxiety, which stemmed from his “tumultuous” childhood in Russia. Neubauer and her husband adopted him in 2009.

    Neubauer, who fought for the mental health reform bill and now serves on the State Children’s Mental Health System Board, said young professionals are in the age group that begins experiencing depression, stress and anxiety because they are leaving an environment that had brought people together — school and social activities.

    Her son was moving in that direction and didn’t know what to do or how to handle it, she said.

    “Those isolating moments feed depression and loneliness,” Neubauer said.

    Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14 and three-quarters by 24, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. One in five adults in America experiences a mental illness, and depression is the No. 1 cause of disability worldwide, the statistics show.

    Iowa Ideas panel member Peggy Huppert, executive director of the state chapter of National Alliance on Mental Health — NAMI Iowa — said two of her daughters have anxiety and depression and the top challenge is getting past the stigma to access care.

    As an example of the stigma and her “wake up call,” Huppert cited discussion at a public meeting over building a psychiatric facility — the Clive Behavioral Hospital. Several people were upset about this kind of hospital coming to town. Some even thought their children would be abducted by the patients.

    More education is needed on mental health, said Mary Thompson, panelist and chief executive officer of the Clive Behavioral Hospital.

    People don’t know about resources and what steps to take when dealing with mental issues. The young professionals age group ranks the highest for having suicidal thoughts.

    Panel members agreed that social media has seemed to have a mostly negative influence on young peoples’ mental health. Many individuals try to compare their lives with others on social media who portray “great lives” and don’t seem to struggle — except that’s usually not real life.

    The overwhelming problem may be that nobody has been taught to identify sadness and anxiety, panelists said. Or people push it away and say “We’re tough — we can handle it.”

    Panelist Tammy Hoyman, chief executive of the Employee & Family Resources nonprofit in Des Moines, said the average person isn’t a trained mental health professional — but doesn’t have to be.

    If a friend, co-worker or employee is struggling, ask him or her to lunch or say, “You seem quiet or tired. Is everything OK.”

    To help, know these warning signs:

    • Feeling sad or withdrawn for over two weeks

    • Trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans

    • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol

    • Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping habits

    Then, share concerns:

    • Start the conversation

    • Assure the individual he or she is not alone

    • Be understanding, caring and non-judgmental.

    Comments: (319) 398-8318;

    Direct Iowa Ideas updates sent to you for free.