As a parent of a child with significant mental health needs, Jennifer Ulie-Wells knows firsthand the struggle in finding comprehensive mental health care for children in Iowa. Ulie-Wells, executive director of Please Pass the Love, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded by parents, said she found great support as a parent from the programs of Des Moines-based Orchard Place.

“Orchard Place saved my child’s life,” Ulie-Wells said during a recent webinar on children’s mental health hosted by the Community Foundation of Iowa.

The community needs to carefully consider how, and where, it invests in children’s mental health, she said.

“There is a narrative in this state that we just need to increase the number of [mental health] professionals. But high numbers do not equate to high-quality care,” she said. “We have to create a strong, sustainable system; otherwise, we are just throwing money at ad-hoc things that may or may not work.”  

Ulie-Wells, with two other Central Iowa counseling professionals, recently shared deep concerns over the increasing levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts that are tormenting young Iowans, in many cases among kids far younger than high school or even middle school ages.

Joining her on the virtual panel discussion on March 9 was Jodie Warth, a vice president with Orchard Place. She leads the Child Guidance Center, which provides outpatient children’s mental health services. Tony Raymer, director of brain health with Easterseals Iowa, also was on the panel. Easterseals operates a fully integrated children’s mental health center at its Camp Sunnyside. The panel was moderated by Sarah Reichardt, the Community Foundation’s charitable giving adviser, and Angie Dethlefs-Trettin, chief community impact officer.

In Iowa, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people, the panelists noted.

According to the 2021 Iowa Youth Survey, 24% of 11th graders said they had seriously contemplated suicide in the previous 12 months, up from 21.4% in 2018. Of those students in the 2021 survey who said they had seriously contemplated suicide, more than half said in the most recent survey they had a plan for how they were going to carry it out.

“Mental health has been an issue long before COVID,” Ulie-Wells said. “When you build a house of toothpicks, you shouldn’t be surprised when it blows down in a storm.”

In Iowa, LGBTQ youths have an extremely high rate of suicidal ideation, Raymer said. He believes this is linked to the way that many adults model negative behavior toward the LGBTQ community, which is then reflected in how they are treated by their peers in school.

Raymer also noted that what he refers to as “brain health issues” are seen across the spectrum of income levels — it’s not just an issue among low-income families. “We are finding well over half of our [clients’ families] are working full time and have private insurance,” he said. “It’s not just people on Medicaid.”

Warth said Orchard Place currently has a six-month waiting list for counseling appointments. However, the organization recently hired an intake specialist so that families could be seen within a week of requesting an appointment to identify extremely urgent cases. “We’ve done that, definitely, as a reaction to the pandemic,” she said.

Ulie-Wells also brought up that UnityPoint Health has established an urgent care behavioral health partnership that enables children with behavioral health needs to be seen immediately rather than having to wait to be seen in hospital emergency departments. “This allows a much more comprehensive approach to helping kids,” she said.

Some of the other key initiatives under way in Greater Des Moines:
  • Easterseals Iowa has opened a crisis stabilization center on the Camp Sunnyside campus that is available 24/7 to all ages.
  • Please Pass the Love is implementing a new grassroots sticker campaign to make information on how to connect with help easily accessible throughout the state.
  • 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, as Axios Des Moines recently reported.

video recording of the webinar can be found at this link on the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines website.