Long before the pandemic began, the Clarke Community School District approached the Clarke County Hospital with the idea of engaging local leaders in addressing childhood trauma to improve the health and mental health of our community.
Decades of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) studies have revealed that untreated trauma or adversity during childhood could have a lasting impact on a child’s development and a person’s overall health and life expectancy. In fact, Iowa data shows that nearly two-thirds of adult Iowans report growing up with at least one of ten categories of child abuse, neglect, or household stress. While nearly one in five Iowans report four or more ACEs (Iowa ACEs 360 Annual Report, 2020).
Our schools, hospital, and community providers see the impact of childhood trauma on mental health and well-being each day whether it be through a child with disruptive behavior in the classroom or a stomachache, a parent struggling with the demands of work and child rearing, a business owner having to fire someone over repeated attendance issues, or a health care worker overwhelmed by the increase in patients attempting suicide. And this was before the added stress, loss, and isolation people faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The mental health of our children, our families, and our community are at greater risk than ever before.
We know what the solutions are to improve the mental health of our community. Research on resiliency demonstrates that children with protective factors, such as relationships with caring adults, a parent who exhibits resilience, a sense of purpose and belonging, the ability to regulate emotions, and/or to access mental health resources and supports, are more likely to have better health. But parents already carrying the heavy burden of stress and demands cannot provide these protective factors alone. With adequate and sustainable investments in programs and systems that support families, our state can construct these protective factors for every child and family in Iowa regardless of their circumstances.
Under Governor Kim Reynolds’ leadership in 2019, the Iowa Legislature passed an historic bill to develop a statewide children’s mental health system, ensuring the same core services would be available to children regardless of where they live. Since then, Governor Reynolds emerged with proposals to create a sustainable funding mechanism for core mental services for children and adults. Unfortunately, the Iowa Legislature has been reluctant to agree with the Governor’s mental health funding proposal, or to even unanimously champion increased access to virtual care for behavioral health services as proposed by Representative Joel Fry in the House. While COVID-19 relief funding coming from the federal government is in the form of competitive or one-time, short-term grants that will serve only a fraction of Iowa’s children in need.
Iowans are keen to have our state leaders to fix the patchwork of children’s mental health services. Adequate, predictable, and sustainable funding for the entire Children’s Mental Health System would allow families to have the right services, at the right dose, at the right time and place—all of which can prevent significant illness later in life.
Iowa children grow up and typically stay in Iowa. If we truly value a healthy workforce to drive our economy, then our state should have comprehensive and accessible mental health care across the lifespan. This comprehensive care should include specific prevention and early intervention services for children that can be delivered at a school, a doctor’s office, a faith-based organization or elsewhere in the community where children and families are connected.
By providing services early on, we can build a strong foundation for future health and well-being. We know the solutions to improve the health and mental health of our community, but these solutions require funding. The time for action is now. Our kids and our community cannot wait.