Health

Survey-driven children's mental health plan could 'save lives'

Cost, waiting lists seen as barriers to children's mental health services

Mae Hingtgen, CEO of the East Central Region, a nine-county mental health region that includes Linn and Johnson counties
Mae Hingtgen, CEO of the East Central Region, a nine-county mental health region that includes Linn and Johnson counties. (Photo provided by East Central Region)

A plan to expand access to children’s behavioral and mental health services could “potentially save lives” by partnering the mental health region with providers and educators and providing funding for these services.

The East Central Region, a nine-county mental health region that includes Linn and Johnson counties, is using survey data to put together a plan to address gaps in children’s mental and behavioral health, including children who are not covered by Medicaid or whose private insurance providers do not cover the mental health services they need.

“This first year is going to be dipping our toe into it,” said Jan Shaw, mental health and disability services coordinator in Johnson County. “For individual kids and families, if they haven’t been able to get to a therapist because they can’t afford it, this could be life-changing for them ... That’s the hope — that we’re really going to have an impact on these mental health issues kids are struggling with and potentially save lives.”

The survey, which received more than 500 responses from providers, educators, parents and concerned residents earlier this year, included these questions:

• What children’s behavioral health services are you aware of in your county?

• Are there behavioral services that you think should be available for children in your area that are not currently available?

• What services would you like to see expanded or available for the well-being of children’s behavioral health?

People who responded to the survey asked for same-day access to affordable treatment, more collaboration among schools and mental health providers, prevention and public education, said Mae Hingtgen, CEO of the East Central Region.

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“Sometimes when families are trying to access psychotherapy for their child, they are looking at a waiting list of weeks to a few months,” Hingtgen said. “We’re digging a little deeper on access and availability of services.”

The survey was conducted by the East Central Region and posted on its website. It also was sent out in email blasts to providers, schools and children’s advocacy groups. The data was analyzed by Mental Health & Disability Services coordinators in each of the counties in the region.

The results of the survey will be discussed with the East Central Region board at a strategic work session Friday in Monticello. The board will be asked to approve a children’s mental health plan at its March 26 meeting.

Jody Bridgewater, Linn County program supervisor for the East Central Region, said the survey is an important indicator of everyday needs of the community, whether they are a parent of a child in need of mental health treatment or an educator working with children with behavioral health needs.

“There was a fair amount of feedback on how education and schools can play a role in supporting children’s mental health and behavioral health needs. Figuring out how that fits together is the challenge,” Bridgewater said.

Finding employees to staff existing mental health providers is a barrier to services, Bridgewater said.

Funding for these programs, which so far is being left up to the regions, also is a challenge, Shaw said.

During the 2019 Iowa Legislative session, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law House File 690, which established a statewide mental health system for children under 18, but did not provide state funding for the program. Plans for how regions will implement a children’s mental health system are due to the state April 1.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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