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Civil Mental Health Court in Johnson County finds success in first year



When Leslie Carpenter, whose son has a severe mental illness, realized Iowa did not have the proper resources to care for his needs, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

Iowa is ranked 51st out of all U.S. states and territories for its low number of state psychiatric beds, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. In 2023, Iowa had 64 in-patient beds, which equates to two beds per 100,000 patients in need.

Carpenter, tired of running out of help for her son, established the first civil mental health court in Iowa. The court provides services to help individuals in outpatient mental health treatment by providing long-term resources to help them transition back to their daily routines.

After one year since its establishment, the court has had 30 patient referrals to the program and 12 participants.

Crain said the court’s two-year pilot program officially started in May 2023 and is reaching the end of its first year with two full-time staff.

The program holds court sessions and meetings with participants at the Johnson County Health and Human Services building.

Carpenter said she quit her full-time career as a physical therapist in 2019 to help change Iowa’s mental health system.

There are more than 650 mental health courts across the U.S., as of 2022, according to the National Treatment Course Research Center.

Crain said the program lasts anywhere from nine to 13 months, according to the ongoing needs of the participant.

The program’s resources include connecting the individual with Medicaid, Integrated Health Home services, and financial and psychiatric services. Iowa provides mental health resource organizations such as Heart of Iowa Community ServicesYour Life Iowa Resource Center, and NAMI Iowa.

These resources each provide a range of mental health services, including 24/7 contact lines, support groups, advocates, and recovery treatment plans.

Yet Carpenter said it is difficult for those with severe mental illness to stay up to date on needed medications, court dates, and other necessary requirements after the patient is released into out-patient care.

Crain said participants must be over 18 years old, have a commitment order in Johnson County, and be diagnosed with a severe mental illness. The court’s program provides more than just mental health resources.

The program works with the Iowa City Shelter House and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to help provide a broader range of resources, other than mental resources, for those experiencing homelessness and physical health issues.

“We can also assist with everyday errands that may need to be completed. We’ve assisted participants with locating housing,” Crain said. “We can pretty much do whatever is needed at this point. But the goal is to get them set up with longer-term services.”

The East Central Regions Mental Health and Disability Services is funding the two-year pilot program with $200,000 per year.

Crain said many of the program’s participants are experiencing homelessness and do not have access to many necessary documents, such as IDs.

“We see a lot of the financial struggle, mental health struggle, substance abuse issues, as well as housing insecurity,” Crain said. “Securing long-term housing for some of our participants for individuals in general who maybe have a little bit of a checkered background can be very difficult. So we actually do work with a lot of individuals that are homeless.”

During a work meeting with the Johnson County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday, Crain and Assistant County Attorney Lynn Rose presented the program’s successes over the past year.

Rose said she was astounded to see the lack of care and resources participants had before joining the program.

Supervisor Royceann Porter praised the program for the successful work being done. Porter said it was important to establish connections with those dealing with mental illness to get them needed help.

RELATED: A deeper look into Iowa Gov. Reynolds; proposed mental health system realignment

Carpenter said she plans on spending the rest of her life fighting to spread awareness about mental health and providing resources for those dealing with severe mental illnesses.

“These severe mental illnesses are unique. If your kid gets cancer, everybody rushes to give you support, including the treatment system,” Carpenter said. “With a severe mental illness, our loved ones often get blocked away with HIPAA … Families are left with too few resources, too little knowledge, too little ability to know how to help their loved ones stay in care.”

Through tears, Carpenter said although the program may never help her own son, she started the fight to help others have mental health resources as soon as possible. Carpenter said the process can be frustrating, but is worth it to save lives.



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