Democratic gubernatorial nominee hopeful Fred Hubbell visited Story County Wednesday morning to participate in a round-table discussion about the local mental health landscape as part of his four-day, 10-stop, statewide Mental Health Tour, announced last week.

Hubbell, the former president of life insurance company Equitable of Iowa, spent the morning at the Story County Justice Center talking with area mental health representatives and members of the Story County Sheriff's Office to hear about their perspectives on the current mental health care system in place — both locally and across Iowa — and ways to improve it.

“This is meant to be a conversation,” Hubbell said. “I'm interested in learning more about mental health because everywhere we travel around the state, it comes up. It's a very important topic among people all across our state, so I want to be able to understand it better and figure out ideas about how we can improve the situation.”

During Wednesday's roundtable, Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds voiced that law enforcement officers are now expected to do more than keep the peace and protect the communities they serve. As a result of not having enough long-term mental health care resources in place, they have to act as stand-in mental health professionals and social workers in many of the situations they encounter, she said.

In Iowa, the focus is also on handling the end results for those with mental illness, Reynolds said, rather than the steps that lead to them.

“We're putting all our resources in after-crisis, and we need to be preventing the crisis situations up front,” Reynolds said. “(That's) not the way we treat mental illness in Iowa.”

Story County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Barry Thomas added, “You've got a lot of good hearts and heads that are working in Story County to make a difference here. We're looking for help. It's hard to be proactive when all your resources are going towards being reactive.”

Another issue brought up by Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald was that individuals struggling with mental health issues often wind up serving time in jail, instead of getting needed services, which is “not the way to treat the non-violent offender.” Linda Hanson, clinic director of Primary Health Care in Ames, suggested looking to Utah for a solution to the problem.

Starting in 2004, the state began implementing a plan called Housing First, which identified individuals considered to be chronically homeless and set them up with their own house. Creating a similar plan in Iowa could help those struggling with mental illness stabilize, resulting in less time spent in jail, she said. Having stable housing provided for those with mental illness would also allow for help to be given in transitioning into living independently, staying on track with medications and accessing health resources.

“You can't case manage people who are homeless,” Hanson said. “Being discharged to a homeless shelter does not allow a person to stabilize. If they're unstable, they're much more likely to commit crimes, get arrested and end up in the jail system.”

Other issues cited at the roundtable were lack of available psychiatrists, mental health care providers who accept Medicaid and local resources for both care and medication.

When asked how he would find a way to promote mental health as a political issue worth pursuing in Iowa should he be elected governor, Hubbell said that outside of the moral obligations to people in need, working toward better mental health services is something that impacts communities as a whole.

“Mental health is a growing issue in our community just in terms of numbers,” Hubbell said. “That's probably not going to change. Assuming it doesn't, then it is going to show up more in the workplace. (You're) going to have more people that miss days on a surprise basis. And you'll have more issues in the community through crisis. It's going to create more public safety issues. And ultimately, if we don't solve that, we will have more criminal activity in our streets. We have to convince people that it does make sense to spend money up front.”