Mental Health Forum Emphasizes Community Collaboration

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By Ryan Jones

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa- More than 10,000 children in Linn County have potential mental health issues. Sound bad? Now imagine this: Fewer than half of these children will get the necessary accompanying services. Eugenia Vavra, manager of community building for United Way of East Central Iowa, presented those statistics during Saturday's "Children and Education: Engaging Families in Mental Health" forum hosted by the Iowa PTA.

An audience of approximately 40 attended the event, held at the Cedar Rapids Community School District's Educational Leadership and Support Center, an opportunity for local leaders to address funding, treatment and other issues surrounding Iowan children with mental illness.

Susie Weinacht, executive director of Iowa PTA, helped to organize the forum in response to the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Saturday's talk was less about school safety and more about solutions like trauma-informed care, which targets youth and accounts for their unique struggles.

Former legislator and mental health professional Renee Schulte, Iowa PTA President Karen Rowan, Executive Director of the Community Corrections Improvement Association Gary Hinzman and Program Director at Four Oaks' Smith Center Ranae Hasselquist all served on a panel and took a broad range of mental health-related questions from the audience. Much of the discussion came back to a central theme, one Hinzman repeated frequently and a twist on a famous Frederick Douglass quote: "It's easier to build a healthy child than it is to repair a broken adult."

"Instead of joining Boy Scouts, they join gangs," he said of some youths who have endured trauma classified as Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. "So it's important that we think of ways we, as a community, can uplift them."

Panelists named people from school counselors to parents as agents for these interventions.

Schulte brought up one high hurdle in addressing mental illness in youth: access to services. Because government funding is allocated to departments – which she called "silos" – instead of following individuals, who may have overlapping needs as a result of mental illness, Schulte said gaps in care can often result. For example, funds for treatment do not address what happens when someone leaves a facility and needs housing or access to employment.

Schulte advocated for "a more holistic approach" to providing those services, a call Hinzman echoed.

"We can do better and we know we can do better to break through the silos and the bureaucratic walls," he said.

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