Last night I heard Joan Becker

By State Rep. Dave Heaton

Last Friday night I attended the annual banquet of Young House Services in Burlington. Young House Services is a child welfare agency that has a group foster care facility in Mt. Pleasant. They provide many other services for southeast Iowa?s troubled youth. Some of these youth are those who may have problems with the law or youth who could be having family issues. They also provide services to those who have mental health problems and provide counseling to these individuals, and help them through their behavioral problems.

Who is Joan Becker? She is the mother of Mark Becker, who on June 24, 2009, shot and killed Coach Ed Thomas, a pillar of the Parkersburg community, who served as long-term football coach of Aplington-Parkersburg High School. To Coach Thomas, coaching and winning at football was just one aspect of his approach to youth. He also instilled leadership and good character in those who chose to play on the Parkersburg football team.

For 30 minutes, Becker stood before the audience and told us how her son, Mark, descended into extreme mental illness. She talked of how, upon entering junior high, he became moody and quiet, withdrawn and eventually, as he approached his senior year in high school, heard voices that spoke to him; leaving Mark feeling very threatened and fearful. Mark?s mental illness turned into Acute Paranoid Schizophrenia.

His behavior escalated to the point that he saw imaginary goons and feared the people who loved him were conspiring against him. Joan and her husband, Dave, repeatedly had him committed to mental hospitals, but those commitments never lasted long. One night he was arrested and taken to the hospital after leading law enforcement officers on a bizarre car chase fueled by his delusions. He was arrested and released three days later. The next morning, he went to the high school, walked into the weight room, and shot and killed Coach Thomas as terrified teens watched.

Joan spoke of the failures of our mental health system to help her son. She feels that the mental health agencies and the hospitals did not respond in an adequate way. Joan and David felt helpless as they watched their son?s mental disease progress.

I sat there and listening to this woman and I thought of all of our work here in the last three years at the Legislature in redesigning our mental health system. We have done much and have much more to do in the world of behavioral health.

We have made sure that certain mental health services are available to all Iowa citizens, regardless of where they live. We are developing crisis intervention facilities that provide a safe temporary environment for people who are going through mental health crisis. We have developed integrated medical homes, which provide a road map and assistance to mental health services, the help and the services that Joan and her husband, Dave, so desperately needed. We are developing a sub-acute level of care facilities that will be located in different areas of the state, which would provide a place for people who are moving from acute level of care.

There are several pieces of legislation that we are working on this current legislative session that will further improve our delivery of mental health care in this state. The legislation includes: HF 434, stipends for mental health professionals in shortage areas; HF 510, secure transportation for persons with mental health; HF 449, psychiatric bed tracking; SF 440, interstate contracts for substance abuse and mental health care; and SF 201, examination of people with serious mental illness.

There is one more need that needs to be addressed and that is the development of a facility that would provide safety and treatment for those who are severely mentally ill. Joan Becker told us that it took nine months to diagnose and effectively medicate Mark Becker?s paranoid schizophrenia. There are between 75 and 100 individuals currently placed in acute level care who are so sick they cannot be returned to the community. Iowa does not have a place for these extremely ill individuals. Until this level of care is developed Iowa will continue to have a backlog for the need of acute level care. The existing facilities should be used for treatment, not places for long-term placement.

Joan, we hear your voice and this legislature is responding and doing the very best we can to improve our mental health system.