A mental health advocacy organization serving Greater Des Moines is ramping up its efforts to bring more awareness and understanding of mental health issues to Central Iowa workplaces. 

NAMI Greater Des Moines, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is launching a series of classes for organizations on such topics as mental health basics, communicating with someone with mental illness, and dealing with stigma and caregiver roles.  

The Workplace Mental Health Education Program is an initiative that NAMI Greater Des Moines’ director, Michele Keenan, had on her to-do list ever since being hired as the organization’s first full-time employee two years ago. 

“Folks spend a lot of their time at work,” Keenan said. “So there’s an interest in meeting people where they’re at.” 

Leading the education initiative is Gary Rasmussen, who joined NAMI Greater Des Moines a year ago as associate director. For the past year, he has been working to develop the programming for the 13 different classes that will be offered. 

Rasmussen spent the first half of his career in law enforcement, where frequent encounters with people in mental health crises led him to earn degrees in psychology and eventually change career paths. He has a master’s degree in psychology from Walden University and is nearing completion of a doctorate in forensic psychology. He also served on NAMI Greater Des Moines’ board for four years before joining the staff last year. 

During his 18-year law enforcement career, Rasmussen was a drug task force member, a K-9 officer, a special response team member and a police chief. In 2006, he changed career paths and began working in community mental health services. 

“I wanted to try to do something with individuals with mental health issues, to divert them away from the criminal justice system before the police were needed,” he said. 

Before putting the program together, NAMI Greater Des Moines confirmed the need for the classes through a survey of Central Iowa businesses, with the assistance of members of the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute as a class project. 

Word of mouth spread about the program, which has been informally tested by some organizations, and the training schedule for the first few months is already filling up, Rasmussen said. 

To ensure effective conversations, enrollment for each class is limited to 40 participants. The total cost of most of the one-hour classes is $250.  

Without even advertising the program, the classes have already attracted a broad mix of organizations, Keenan said. “We’ve been very pleasantly surprised with the diversity of the businesses that have expressed interest,” she said. “Banking, retail, health care, small business — it really has run the gamut, which we are obviously thrilled to see.” 

For more information about the Workplace Mental Health Education Program, including a list of classes and registration, click here.