Schools ‘scream’ for mental health help, local AEA leader calls for legislative action
Chief administrators of the Iowa area education agencies will make mental health the key talking point with legislators this year, and according to Prairie Lakes AEA leader Jeff Herzberg, it’s about time. Among their recommendations is to create a universal screening process for mental issues.
“This needs to be on the front page of every newspaper in this state,” he asserts.
Herzberg, of Pocahontas, was appointed last fall by the governor to the newly-created Children’s System State Board, the group charged with developing a children’s mental health system for the state.
For Herzberg, the issue runs deeper than his role working with schools that are “screaming” for help on mental health problems with their students. He’s lived it.
“My mother struggled with mental illness throughout her life,” he told the Pilot-Tribune. “It means that life for everyone around that person becomes very unpredictable. She would appear very put together, smart, funny one moment, and the next would be chaos.”
In her time, young people were not diagnosed with mental illness, so conditions often worsened throughout life. “Outside my mother looked fine, but inside, it was tearing her apart. That chaos was what I grew up with, so I feel for kids who are dealing with that today.”
The new board he serves on has spent its first four months putting together a set of recommendations for the governor and legislators.
“We desperately need to put together a system for children’s mental health in this state,” he says. “There is a lot going on, but Iowa has no real, collaborative system to make sure these kids are being served. I wanted to be on that board because I hear our school districts screaming for help. Every one of them has a few kids who are really struggling with mental illness, and a lot who are struggling with some form of trauma in their lives,” Herzberg said.
“It may be mild anxiety, all the way to a full-blown mental health crisis, but these children and their families need help, and the schools need help.”
At the board’s first meeting, it was agreed that the process needed to “get more voices of the parents in the room,” he said, leading to a series of listening posts held in each AEA district, with an online option for those who could not attend.
“We had over 500 comments, so that should tell out legislators that we have a real problem, and it is not just a rural or a city problem,” Herzberg said.
In Iowa’s cities, available services are disjoined, and people fall through the cracks. In rural areas, there may be no services at all.
“We have to provide continued care for kids and families, no matter what their zip code is,” he said, suggesting that one of the first efforts should be to recruit more people to become educated as future mental health professionals to fill Iowa’s vast void.
“We also need support for our schools. It is really putting a strain on teachers and staff. I have teachers in our area telling us they are seeing problems in their classrooms that they have never seen in the past. It hurts school morale, it hurts their confidence in what they are doing. The reason these people went into education was to make a difference.
“Often, students with mental health issues are unable to focus, or tone out the noise around them, and they end up disrupting others. Then parents complain - why should my kid have to have his or her classroom cleared three times a month? Why can’t you just take that problem kid out of the classroom?”
The why is because there is no place for that child to go, Herzberg says. “Schools don’t have the resources. Communities don’t have the resources. There are very few beds available in Iowa for people who need treatment.”
One in five people will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime, he said. “That’s epidemic.”
If one in five people were dying or seriously ill from a new strain of flu, imagine what dramatic action the government would be taking and people would be demanding, he muses.
“With appropriate skills, support, maybe medication, a lot of those people can thrive.”
Why is mental illness in the schools seeming to increase explosively now? It may be better diagnosis, or factors in the environment, or even diet of children, Herzberg feels. In the past maybe those kids wouldn’t even be allowed in school, or the would be dismissed by everyone there as “just weird or different,” he says.
The local AEA leader has another thought for what may be behind the problem in some cases - parental disconnection.
“Look around in any restaurant in your town. More than half of the adults there will be looking at their cell phone instead of interacting with their family. We talk about how wonderful technology is, but I’m not so sure all this screen time is doing good things for our children.”
Economic stress for much of the population may also be a factor both in fostering mental problems, and failing to treat them.
“If you are told, hey, you need to take your child to Iowa City for an evaluation, for people with money, it’s a no-brainer. But for people without money for things like food and gas, how are they supposed to do that?”
Herzberg is clearly out of patience with the state’s lack of decisive action.
“We’re asking legislators, right now, to have the courage. To have courage to allocate resources before one more kid dies of suicide in our state, before one more parent has to go to bed wondering if their child will make it through the night. This is 2018, we have the knowledge, we have the expertise to do this. But unfortunately, we have a lot of people who think that if they just ignore it, it will go away, and a lot of leaders willing to say, not me, it’s not my issue.”
If a child had a broken arm, the situation would be addressed immediately, he adds. “A mental health condition is no different. We have to deal with it.”
He is thankful that some athletes and celebrities are now coming forward to talk openly about their own mental health problems. “It’s a good thing, because now we’re talking about it. There was a day when cancer wasn’t talked about openly.”
The board’s recommendations, and the AEAs call for action, are nothing new, Herzberg adds. “This is probably the fourth time in the last 20 to 30 years that some group has been put together and urged the legislature to act, and nothing has ever gotten done,” he said.
The board recommendations call for actions to begin taking place by 2020. “We know the system can’t snap its fingers and suddenly have enough people in the profession. But by helping students who go into the mental health field today to afford college or pay back their loans, we can begin to get the ball rolling.”
The board calls on the legislature to pass, and the governor to sign, several bills during the upcoming 2019 session, including:
• By July 1, 2020, age-appropriate, universal behavioral health screenings that determine whether a child needs behavioral health services shall be provided at periodic intervals to Iowa’s children and their families.
• Iowa’s children with an identified need for behavioral health services shall have access to the right services by the right provider at the right time in prevention, early intervention, comprehensive crisis services, behavioral health treatment and flexible community support.
• Effective July 1, 2019, the Children’s Behavioral Health System State Board (State Board) be codified in statute.
• Beginning July 1, 2019, the Department of Human Services shall support and carry out the directions of the State Board and direct and guide the regional governance system throughout the state.
• Behavioral health services will include substance abuse treatment and support services.
• Regional governance shall be designated as the point of responsibility and accountability for developing access to the required set of core services regardless of funding source.
• Stable, ongoing funding shall be identified and secured that maximizes available funds from all private, local, state, and federal sources beginning July 2019.
• By March 2020, administrative rules shall be written and adopted, in consultation with the Children’s Behavioral Health Board, for a universal screening process, minimum required services and access standards, and state and regional governance.