Hundreds expected to walk with NAMI for mental health this Saturday

NAMIWalks Johnson County

Terry Trueblood Recreation Area — Saturday, May 6 at 10 a.m. (check-in at 8:30 a.m.)

NAMI Walk 2011. — photo courtesy of NAMI Johnson County

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Johnson County hosts the largest fundraiser for mental health in the area this Saturday: its 13th annual 5k walk at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area (579 McCollister Blvd, Iowa City).

The event includes live music, children’s activities, free dog treats and a chance to talk openly about mental illness. State Sens. Liz Mathis and Joe Bolkcom, Johnson County Supervisors and Rep. Dave Loebsack will be in attendance.

“Everyone is welcome whether you walk or roll like I do, I have a disability,” walk manager Erin Noon said. Dunham School Services donated a bus for a free shuttle service and the city will provide para-transit. To request transportation assistance, call (319) 337-5400 or email

Get updates about the walk on Facebook or Twitter.

What is NAMI Johnson County?

NAMI is the largest national grassroots organization for mental health, according to Jen Day, program coordinator for NAMI Johnson County’s R Place Peer Recovery Center. She expects 500-1000 people to attend the event, which aims to raise funds for the organization’s work while stamping out stigma associated with mental illness.

Day said many think of mental health care as the psych ward or mental institutions, but most care today ranges from outpatient services to direct support in a group home. Calling NAMI (319) 337-5400 or 211 can help people navigate the mental health system, and Johnson County’s Crisis Stabilization Program, (855) 800-1239, is an emergency alternative to police or the hospital.

The walk will fund peer-to-peer and family-to-family support, legislative advocacy, office staff and projects to raise awareness, including dramatic programs featuring personal stories of mental illness and recovery.

Why is raising awareness important?

“What people don’t realize is these people are already our family, already our friends, already our loved ones and our neighbors. It’s not them — people with mental illness are already us,” Day said. “Every person experiences trauma in their life and everyone has varying mental health.”

Effective treatments are available but many don’t access services because they don’t know how to find them, or because they don’t understand that what they are suffering with is mental illness, Day said. Day’s mother was deeply effected when her house flooded and she has gotten to the point where she doesn’t leave the house, but won’t access mental health services because of the stigma, she said.

Day said some perceive people with mental illness as a threat, which is not warranted, and that the concept of recovery is often misunderstood.

“Recovery from mental illness, that means making it through the crisis, getting your life back. It may mean managing the symptoms,” Day said. “There are people like myself leading everyday, successful, full lives who are a little quirky. I have ADHD. I don’t always concentrate well; I get distracted. I’m not a dangerous person.”

Hidden costs of a broken system

Day said there are financial costs to the community when services aren’t locally available. She said taxpayers pay police to drive patients across the state for the first available bed instead of providing cheaper outpatient services.


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She said taxpayers also foot the bill for costs associated with homelessness and pay more to keep people with substance abuse issues incarcerated than they would if they were in treatment programs. Day and NAMI board member Rita Offutt said the prison system often serves as the de facto mental health system.

“I happen to know a man who unfortunately developed schizophrenia, wound up in jail and was so sick he couldn’t communicate well enough to get out of the jail so he was in there for a month,” Day said.

NAMI Walk 2008. — photo courtesy of NAMI Johnson County

Funding a major issue for mental health in Iowa

“Why does it matter if you have less money? … That young man in Colorado who shot those people in the movie theatre, he was having command hallucinations to kill people,” Day said. “[Having less money] means there’s nowhere for him to go. That means that he might have to wait a day, or two, to get into the psych ward.”

Policy at the national level impacts what mental health providers are able to offer in Iowa. Offutt said she is concerned that repealing the Affordable Care Act might cause insurance companies to drop mental health coverage from their policies.

Executive Director of NAMI Johnson County Mary Issah said national Medicaid funding is in crisis. Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan said Medicaid funding is crucial because Medicaid increasingly funds much of our mental health care.

“Unfortunately, Medicaid in Iowa is being destroyed by private Managed Care Organizations, or MCOs. These MCOs attempt to reduce services while retaining the difference as profit for their shareholders,” Sullivan said.

Solutions proposed, blocked in the state legislature

Honorary chair of the NAMI walk Sen. Liz Mathis introduced several bills in the 2017 legislative session to address problems with Iowa’s mental health system.

SF380 would have removed a cap on the number of state mental health beds. Mathis said some argue empty beds are unnecessary and costly, but some beds are empty because they don’t match patients’ needs — for example, if a patient arrives with highly complex needs or violent behaviors requiring additional staff, it is not appropriate or safe for them to be placed in a less supported bed.

“DHS has kind of relied on the private system then to fill in some of that need, and now the private system is full,” Mathis said.

SF369 would have charged the Department of Human Services with oversight of the state’s bed tracking system, which is not functioning because hospital staff are not consistently entering data, Mathis said.

SF368 would have required MCOs to pay providers in a timely manner, standardized terms like “medical necessity” across Iowa’s three MCOs and streamlined preauthorization of specific procedures so that healthcare providers know what is and isn’t covered and how to proceed.

“Preauthorization is taking so long and many times its rejected, so the patient may be sent home without the patient getting the test the doctor thinks they need,” Mathis said.

None of these bills became law, but a few provisions were included in a Health and Human Services appropriations bill, including steps toward a children’s mental health system which Mathis plans to push for next year.

“The MCOs want to make sure they’re trimming costs because they only get a certain amount of money from the state,” she said. “The status of our mental health services is not adequate and we keep spinning our wheels.”

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