Guest Columnist

A message for Iowa lawmakers - 'Our kids matter'

Okpara Rice, CEO at Tanager Place, speaks on a panel in the Human Social Services track, Protecting Iowa's Kids, at the
Okpara Rice, CEO at Tanager Place, speaks on a panel in the Human Social Services track, Protecting Iowa's Kids, at the second annual Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Welcome to 2020. We’ve once again arrived at the time of year when we look to the future and consider the possibilities of the new year.

My hope is children struggling with mental health challenges have access to the love and support they need. It is a vision for the future that requires us all.

As a member of the state government board that helps guide our children’s mental health system, I know we still have a long way to go.

When we think about the wants and needs from our state for children’s mental health, it sometimes seems overwhelming. Because Iowa waited so long to begin this journey, issues have piled up and exacerbated. Moving forward requires focusing our time and resources on what will move the needle for children and families.

First and foremost, we must solve the resource allocation issue for both rural and urban Iowa. We cannot have any child devoid of services because of where they live; geography must never dictate health and wellness. We must ensure core services exist and are accessible by every child.

Ensuring this level of access requires consistent and persistent state investment. I understand these are difficult conversations. I also understand we’ve avoided them for far too long. We do speak about other industries that comprise our state, and we don’t shy away from discussions related to their funding. Children’s mental health is vital and important work that deserves equal attention.

Some mental health services have not seen a cost of living increase in years. From a provider’s standpoint, this is not sustainable. So many amazing providers try to do so much with so little, and they often succeed on the shoulders of incredibly generous donors. And while all providers are grateful to the individuals and groups who bridge this gap, the reality is our children need and deserve the state’s commitment.

Our action must meet and exceed our rhetoric. Iowa can lead the nation in all aspects of children’s mental health care, if we muster the collective will to do so.

So, my hope for the upcoming legislative session is for the voices of parents to fill the halls of the Capitol. We need the perspective of Iowa parents from every corner of the state, and we must make sure lawmakers not only hear, but that they comprehend.

Iowa parents are doing their best to navigate the patchwork of our mental health system. Their stories must be carried into every meeting so that we can make the system better for everyone.

I meet a lot of parents, in a lot of different settings. They aren’t so different from each other. Every parent wants to see their child thrive. Every parent wants to see their child reach their full potential. We must listen to parents today, tomorrow and next year to understand what they are going through and the obstacles they face.

Likewise, we should be listening to young adults who previously navigated the system or are currently seeking care. They have valuable, firsthand patient insights that should not be overlooked or dismissed. Youth have a powerful voice and are standing up asking for help. Every day a courageous young person comes forward to seek help. The stigma we may have faced years ago is fading away. Young people understand and are crying for help. When they step forward, we must be ready and able to help them.

From patients to those who lead Iowa’s Managed Care Organizations, I believe that when we work together we find effective and sustainable solutions. I think there is widespread agreement the system is not perfect and has been a bit bumpy. We must engage everyone in finding solutions. We must be honest about gaps in services and work with MCOs to help fill those gaps. Policy developed without parents, providers, funders and legislators in the room will not last. We need full buy in to build the system of which we are capable.

I’ve had the honor of meeting with stakeholders at multiple levels, all of who care passionately about how we can make the lives of children better. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with the parents of children getting the help they need, and of collaborating with providers to fill the gaps.

I am not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but I nonetheless see so much potential. Each year is another opportunity to move our fledgling children’s mental health system forward, and each legislative session is another opportunity to climb the golden dome and shout to the rest of the nation, “Our kids matter.” I hope you will join me in making this hope a reality in 2020.

Okpara Rice is the CEO of Tanager Place.

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