Mental Health in Iowa

At church this morning, the pastor shared some recent statistics highlighting how poorly Iowa ranks in providing mental health services.  Unfortunately, I was not surprised by this information, as my experiences as a criminal defense attorney indicate that the criminal justice system in Iowa has become the State’s preferred method for treating and housing the mentally ill.

According to a report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, Iowa ranks dead last in the country for state psychiatric beds per capita and that half those beds are occupied by people in the criminal justice center.  The Iowa Department of Correction’s statistics show that just over 30% of the total prison population have a serious mental illness – inmates with schizophrenia, psychosis/psychotic disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, organic brain syndrome and dementia. Another 21.3% had some other mental illness.  Over half the State of Iowa prison population has a mental illness and I believe that number is even higher.

As a criminal defense attorney it is becoming harder and harder to find appropriate treatment facilities in our state at help clients.  It is nearly impossible to find a bed or treatment facility for inpatient care and the waiting lists for outpatient care are increasing at alarming rates.

I do not claim to have the answers on how to change this trend, but other jurisdictions have created and used mental health courts similar to the drug court or recovery court programs used in our state.   Other jurisdictions have special dual diagnosis and mental health probations.  These ideas might help here in Iowa.   However, these type of programs require appropriate resources and our legislature has routinely fallen short of providing adequate resources to the court system as well to programs and resources dedicated to mental health treatment. Instead of properly funding needed programs, our state has relied upon a system of using fees and surcharges to support the system.  The lack of funding has created a house of cards ready to crumble.

The prison population of this state will only increase if our communities keep relying on the criminal justice system to treat and maintain our community’s mentally ill.  We have an obligation to protect and care for the less fortunate and the criminal justice system is not the system to accomplish this.  We must strive for better solutions and treatment options for the mentally ill in our community.

Jesse Macro, Jr.