Lack of Beds and Transitory Care Another Hurdle in Iowa's Mental Health Crisis

Jul 12, 2016

In a report on psychiatric beds in all fifty states and the District of Columbia, the Treatment Advocacy Center found Iowa ranked dead last in terms of mental health beds per capita. Dr. Jimmy Potash, professor and chair of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, says that's a big problem.

"It’s very clear that we don’t have as many psychiatric beds in the state as we really need. And the gap is most glaring when it comes to state psychiatric beds. In that important way we don’t have an adequate safety net for the mentally ill."

But it's more than a question of quantity. Equally important is how the state puts the beds to use. Tony Leys, health reporter for the Des Moines Register, found mentally ill Iowans were stranded for months in Iowa hospitals because they had nowhere to transition to. He profiled a man who had been cleared for release, but was forced to wait an additional year and two months before actually being able to leave.

"The country is getting away from having institutional care for people with mental illness. And for most people, that's a good thing. We've been trimming or closing big institutions, and closing residential care facilities, the old county homes, here in Iowa. We've closed several dozen of them in the last ten years. And most people who used to go to those facilities are being shifted into apartments or shared private houses with some supervision from residential care facilities and for most people that's worked out pretty well."

That doesn't account for everyone, however.

"But there's the small number of people who have more severe mental illness who can't really cope. So then when they go to a hospital in a crisis, they get stabilized, the hospital tries to find them a placement, and all the agencies say, 'We aren't set up at the moment to take that person.' So they wind up in the psych ward for weeks or months at a time."

In this River to River program, host Ben Kieffer speaks with Potash and Leys about the shortage of mental health care services in the state.