Mar 17, 2022 - News

Hundreds of Iowa kids wait for mental health care

Illustrated collage of a stressed woman with mask on surrounded by school books, a crying child, a laptop, and a cell phone with a virus image on the screen
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Polk County is considering new ways to fill a mental health care shortage that has left hundreds of children waiting for services — many for more than a year.

Why it matters: Delays in assistance for children can prolong suffering, contribute to health issues and potentially hamper their long-term development.

Driving the news: Supervisors are considering a retention and recruitment program for mental health professionals who agree to work in the county for multiple years.

  • Student loan repayment and other financial incentives are possible.

Zoom in: A group of eight mental health care providers in Polk County told supervisors in a meeting last month that they've been struggling to manage worker shortages and an increased need for services, particularly among children, during the pandemic.

  • More than 550 kids seeking help from ChildServe in Johnston are on a waiting list for psychologists and 200 for mental health therapy, said Teri Wahlig, CEO of ChildServe.
  • Dozens more wait for services at other ChildServe locations across the state, spokesperson Jordan Juhl told Axios.
  • Children often wait more than a year for services, Juhl said.

Flashback: The state's mental health system was strained prior to the pandemic, according to health care advocates. Many providers were at times forced to turn away both children and adults for a variety of reasons, including capacity limits.

  • Mobile crisis response teams and 24-hour hotlines were set up or expanded in the last three years following state and local efforts to alleviate the pressures.

The big picture: States across the country are struggling with mental health care worker shortages, with just under 30% of need being met nationally, according to an analysis published in September by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

  • Other governments are also considering action, including California, where $37,000 in stipends could be made available to students pursuing a master’s degree in social work.

What's next: Polk County may use some of the $195 million it has allocated in federal pandemic assistance to offer incentives.

  • A formal proposal that will include program guidelines is expected in coming weeks, Supervisors Chairperson Angela Connolly told Axios.
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