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DES MOINES, Iowa– All medical schools across the country teach their students how to diagnose mental illnesses. No school, however, has made it a requirement to teach these future doctors how to care for patients with mental illnesses.

So in 2018, Des Moines University partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to offer a Provider Education Program. This course started off as an elective but students believed it was worth it and now the class is required.

“There’s some really horrifying statistics that folks with severe mental illnesses die on average 15 to 30 years earlier than people who don’t have those illnesses. And that’s not about suicide, Professor, Dr. Lisa Streyfeller said. “That’s about untreated heart disease, untreated hypertension, those kinds of things. So we were looking for a way to help our students become more comfortable with folks with severe mental illnesses.”

Streyffeler says one reason those with mental illnesses receive poor or no treatment is a result of the stigma still surrounding mental health.

“Stigma can actually get worse in medical school. And the reason for that is, students and patients at their worst. So typically they learn about psychiatry on an inpatient psychiatric ward and they see folks when they’re in crisis at the absolute worst time in their lives. And they don’t necessarily get to follow them out and see what happens when they get better,” Dr. Streyffeler said.

This is why one of the key components of the course is to have someone in recovery from a mental illness, a loved one of someone with a mental illness, and a healthcare provider come speak to the class. These individuals sharing their stories with students not only normalizes functioning patients with mental illnesses but also lets students know what went wrong in their experiences and how they can make the medical system better.

“And so we looked at this program and it was really about stigma reduction. It was about helping our students to understand what do folks need when they’re in the middle of this how do we generate collaborative, comfortable, engaged care for people,” Dr. Streyffeler said.

Dr. Streffler said DMU has already seen the positive impact this course has had on their medical students’ ability to engage with patients who struggle with mental health issues. This Provider Education Program is now a third year requirement for students at DMU with over 200 students enrolled.

Des Moines University received $250,000 in state funding last year for this program. Now they are in the process of seeking continued funding through 2021 to make this a permanent staple in their curriculum.