Staff Editorial

In Iowa: Iowa veteran's plight highlights mental health failings

Trevor Satrom (photo from Vinelink)
Trevor Satrom (photo from Vinelink)

Let’s set aside all the statistics that show the dismal state of mental health services in Iowa — 47th in psychiatrists, 44th in mental health workforce availability and 51st in the ratio of state psychiatric beds to residents. Repeating statistics hasn’t made much difference anyway.

Instead, consider that as you are reading this, a 36-year-old Iowa man — a former Navy Seabee who served with honor in Afghanistan and developed a behavioral health diagnosis — is sitting in a jail cell.

Decorah native Trevor Satrom first ran afoul of the law in 2016. Following a weeklong investigation, a search of his rental home in Northeast Iowa’s Oran that February revealed more than 30 pounds of gunpowder, steel pipes with drilled end caps, two pressure cookers, fuses, shredded metal, BBs, a flamethrower, napalm mix, body armor, smoke grenades and assorted firearms.

The combination of materials — some similar to what was used to create deadly explosions at the 2013 Boston Marathon — was not only concerning, but a violation of the National Firearms Act, which requires registration of specific materials that can be used to create destructive devices.

Although immediately taken into custody by law enforcement, Satrom was not immediately placed in a traditional jail cell. Instead he was transported to a hospital, where remained for 23 days. Upon his release from the hospital in early March 2016, Satrom was arrested and held on $100,000 cash bail for nearly a year.

The charges Satrom faced could have led to 10 years in prison. But, after he pleaded guilty, his attorney explained Satrom’s mental health issues — paranoid schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, which stemmed from his military service.

Between that and Satrom’s lack of previous criminal history, judicial discretion was extended. Satrom was given five years’ probation, during which time he had to relinquish his passport and submit to GPS tracking and random searches.

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But now Satrom is once again in jail for not complying with probation restrictions and policies. He had stopped taking his medication, which was a requirement, and was evicted from his dwelling in July. The Navy veteran had been sleeping in his van at a campground, although he receives about $2,000 each month due to his service and disability. Monitoring showed several trips this year to a casino.

On Wednesday, the court will begin the process of revoking Satrom’s probation, which will likely result in some type of incarceration. Whether Satrom winds up in a secured medical facility or a more traditional detention center is more likely than not to hinge on what’s available than on the man’s crime, history or illness. Yes, we’re back to those pesky statistics again.

When mental illness leads to crime — especially a crime with the potential of harm — the court has far too few resources at its disposal. Society doesn’t look kindly on law enforcement, prosecutors and judges who fail to protect the public, regardless of reason. That Satrom was known to have components of mass destruction is reason enough to fear for his life and the lives surrounding around him.

But let’s also not forget this is a man who successfully served in the military, who attended college, who planned for a much different future than the one he now faces. Something went terribly wrong, and the society now fearful of his capabilities either couldn’t or wouldn’t offer the level of help he needed to get back on course.

We can simultaneously acknowledge the danger he poses while mourning the loss of his potential.

In the spring of 2014 — two years before law enforcement began investigating Satrom — I wrote about the state’s lack of prison alternatives for those with mental illness. At that time, the Iowa Department of Corrections included information in its annual report that documented the number of people behind bars with a mental illness, and provided breakdowns of those inmate’s diagnosis.

At that time, about half the Iowa prison population (47 percent) had a mental health diagnosis for a chronic condition, which includes substance abuse disorder and depression. But a full quarter of inmates are ill with a serious mental condition, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, dementia and recurrent psychosis.

This is the prison population using “significant resources” because of its need for medical and psychiatric interventions.

“This population is difficult to treat, has cyclical episodes despite stability on medication, and often has a course that shows functional decline over the years despite the best of interventions the system uses to provide stability,” the report noted.

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In other words, despite significant public investment and ongoing treatment, people with severe mental health disorders generally do not show improvement within a correctional institution. In fact, their condition often gets worse, which leads to higher recidivism once they are released.

This isn’t a new problem, but a crisis that has festered for so long it has been normalized. Prisons have become our de facto mental health institutes, and some people have been stamped as expendable.

Perhaps the link between Satrom’s illness and his military background will result in better placement and appropriate medical intervention. I hope it does, but those pesky statistics we keep ignoring don’t line up in his favor.

l Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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