Mental health groups say they were unaware of new $20 million program

By: - July 12, 2021 12:42 pm

The announcement of a $20 million school mental health program was a surprise to key stakeholder groups. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Iowa mental health, psychology and counseling groups said they were not consulted in the development of a $20 million school mental health partnership between the University of Iowa and the state.

On June 23, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the creation of the Center for School Mental Health, a new set of resources funded with federal COVID-19 relief money. The program will operate out of the University of Iowa’s Baker Teacher Leader Center, providing additional training and mental health resources to schools across Iowa.

Peggy Huppert, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Iowa, said she was “surprised, pleasantly so” to hear in late June that the state would commit $20 million for a new school mental health program.

“I’m not sure really who knew,” Huppert said. “I haven’t found anyone yet who knew in advance.”

Huppert also serves on the Children’s Behavioral Health System State Board, a state-appointed group to implement Iowa’s childhood mental health system. She said the state board never discussed the $20 million investment ahead of the June announcement.

Daniel Clay, dean of the College of Education at the University of Iowa, and Department of Education Director Ann Lebo were not available for comment about who collaborated on the creation of the program. Clay is scheduled to give a 10-minute presentation about the new center at a Tuesday meeting of the Children’s Board, according to a meeting agenda.

Representatives from the Iowa School Psychologists Association and the Iowa School Counselor Association said they were also unaware of the new program ahead of the announcement. Nicole Skaar, past president of the Iowa School Psychologists Association and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, said she was still unaware of many details about the program, barring what was said in the initial press release.

“I first heard about it the way it seemed many of my colleagues did, and it was through the press release from the Department of Education and the newspapers,” Skaar said. “We were not aware that this was being discussed until we read it in the papers.”

She reserved judgment on the new program until she saw a detailed plan, but said she was excited about the investment into mental health. Skaar also encouraged the state to continue funding mental health programs across the state with successful track records.

“I think that there’s lots of great work happening in little pockets across the state,” Skaar said. “And why not have the Department of Education or whoever that may be learning about these great pieces of work that are happening across the state and lifting them up or using them to springboard future work?”

Clay told the Capital Dispatch in June the new center was an expansion of existing efforts at the University of Iowa. The federal funds will be used to expand the services from a few paying school districts to “all the schools that need it.” The center will ultimately serve three primary purposes: educating teachers about identifying mental health issues, researching school mental health practices and providing a clinical service for students and educators.

At least some of these programs will be available this summer, according to the initial press release. Huppert was skeptical the program could expand that quickly.

“Educators don’t usually work that fast,” Huppert said, laughing.

School mental health groups agree on long list of priorities

Despite the surprise announcement, representatives from the various organizations agreed on several priorities for Iowa’s children’s mental health infrastructure. At the top of the list: a workforce shortage of trained school psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals. 

Even if teachers and counselors can identify students who need help, Skaar said, there must be a network of professionals ready to help them.

“We can find all the kids we want, but if we can’t get them the services because there’s a lack of providers or not an efficient system … then what are we doing?,” she said. “We’re doing nothing but finding kids and then saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’”

Huppert gave the example of psychiatrists, doctors who specialize in prescribing and monitoring medicine for mental health: Though Iowa has 137,000 people with chronic, serious mental illness, she said, there are only about 120 practicing psychiatrists in the state. There are just 32 children’s psychiatrists. Sheryl Cline, past president of the Iowa School Counselor Association, said counselors also needed a more reliable referral list to connect students with professional help.

Clay said in June that, in addition to training more school mental health professionals, the Center for School Mental Health will provide clinical assessments and short-term services for students and staff who need immediate intervention. Then, the center will help individuals connect with local resources for long-term care.

Experts agreed these resources will be especially important in the coming school year, as teachers and students recover emotionally from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The social isolation that went with this pandemic was difficult for a lot of students,” Clay said.  “And coming back this fall, I think, is going to create some anxiety and some adjustment issues for students and even, perhaps, some faculty and staff.”

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.

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