Sheriff Sounding Alarm on Mental Health Issues: ‘They don’t belong in a jail’

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WINTERSET, Iowa — A local sheriff is sounding the alarm on mental health, saying there are people who are in desperate need of help that are not getting it.

Madison County Sheriff Jason Barnes says it’s the No. 1 problem he faces in the county — more than drunk driving or other crimes. He says people are suffering because of a lack of resources to deal with the issue of mental health.

“We’ve had people in our jail that needed mental health [help.] They don’t belong in a jail. But there’s no other place for them,” Barnes said. “They will sit in our jail until a bed in Cherokee opens up or Independence. We’ve ran all the way to Dubuque.”

Barnes said going out of state  for beds may be the next step. In the meantime, he’s turned to telepsych, which is the process of having inmates communicate with doctors as far away as New York via computer.

Madison County hospital staff says they deal with similar issues on a weekly basis.

“Up to 30 days we’ve held people in our ER looking for placement before,” said Clarice Blanchard.

The Madison County emergency room has limited resources and isn’t able to provide the kind of care that people experiencing a mental health crisis need. But finding placement for those patients elsewhere is a struggle.

“Every time it seems like we go through a list of all the inpatient facilities in the state, and we are turned down often for one reason for another,” Blanchard said.

She said this happens even when patients are court committals.

“The court has either committed them to go through psychiatric evaluation or family members have deemed them unsafe at home and need to be in an inpatient facility. So we can even have a court committal in hand stating that this person, by law, has to be in an inpatient facility and we still struggle to find placement,” Blanchard said.

Barnes said people in need of care often end up back at home instead of getting much-needed treatment.

“It stops as soon as we pick them up and take them to the hospital. They draw their blood, they do some tests. Often, we don’t find a bed for this person and they’re taken home,” he said.

Last August, the Iowa Department of Human Services implemented an inpatient psychiatric bed-tracking system to locate beds more quickly when hospitalization is necessary.

“In our experience, it hasn’t been one that’s been updated on a very regular basis. For example, there’s a bed available at one of the Mercy Des Moines inpatient facilities, it may show that they have a bed available but that was maybe yesterday’s census and not today. So it’s not always an accurate representation of what’s available,” said Blanchard.

A spokesperson for Gov. Terry Branstad said the administration has invested over $310 million in mental and disability services since 2013.

On Monday, Branstad announced the creation of three new psychiatric medical residency programs to recruit and retain psychiatric professionals in Iowa.

Staff in the ER at Madison County Hospital says the state also needs to invest more in nurses to take care of the psychiatric patients.

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