Tackling Mental Health in Iowa

Finding people who cared was easy. Figuring out what to do was another story.

By Erica Shannon Stueve and Rev. Lee Schott*

United Methodism’s Iowa Annual Conference, through Bishop Laurie Haller, set up a task force on mental health in early 2018. The idea began when Monique Shore, a laywoman from Grinnell, a small town in east central Iowa, proposed legislation at our 2017 annual conference that included the formation of such a team. It seemed the right response to Iowa ranking nationally almost last in mental health care, especially in the availability of beds for acute care. Shore said, in essence, “We can do better.” She gathered support from some churches, and the legislation was approved.

The bishop’s staff put together a task force of lay and clergy leaders who find themselves working in the area of mental health. A lawyer for a health care organization. The pastor of our United Methodist church inside the Iowa women’s prison. Clergy who serve as counselors. Laity who deal with mental illness within their families. A retired cop who saw Iowa’s mental health system (or lack thereof) up close. A schoolteacher, and members of churches that have their own mental health ministry. All of us united by personal, professional and policy commitment to improve mental health care in Iowa.

PHOTO: Kathi Mitchell

But how to do that? Whenever we met, in person or by conference call, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the size and number of issues and possibilities. We quickly put together a couple of workshops for annual conference 2018, which were offered to capacity crowds. But that immediate effort left unanswered the bigger questions: What are we going to tackle? What can we accomplish? With a generous offering at annual conference, that question took on financial dimensions: How will we spend the funds our fellow Iowa United Methodists gave to support this work?

On the way to answering those questions, task force member Kathi Mitchell took on the project of scheduling and promoting Mental Health First Aid training in every one of our districts. The training was hosted by United Methodist churches around the state, between late June and Dec. 31.  By the end of October, 154 people had completed this training! They chose to spend a day immersed in questions of mental health and how to respond to mental health needs—similar to the way many of us have been trained in CPR or first aid to address medical crises. Those people from across the state took a first step in expressing their care and desire to respond to mental health challenges in our midst.

It’s those 154 people — and more by the end of November — who have given our task force a sense of direction for next steps and overall direction. They represent dozens of communities and local circumstances across Iowa. The more we thought about these people, the clearer our mission became. Our task force isn’t about some dramatic, centralized “win” for mental health; it’s about enlightening, encouraging and equipping people around the state to take action where they are, individually and with their churches to make the changes they can.

Here’s how we put it in our newly adopted purpose statement:

Our purpose is to enlighten, encourage and equip a network of United Methodists and others who are working to strengthen mental and emotional health in Iowa through unflinching, practical, transformative acts of engagement, caring and connection, including:

  • within their personal relationships and circles of care,
  • within their own churches and communities,
  • through civic and volunteer roles, and/or
  • by advocating for legislative change.

We are only beginning to communicate with those first trainees – and others who may join in the work – to help connect them with the rich menu of opportunities to engage. Local churches can host conversations about mental health and create a culture of welcome for people and their families who are dealing with mental health challenges. Ideas – like creating community coalitions of providers, police, judges and others whose work intersects with mental health – can help us consider how we can do better. Individuals can be trained as crisis line advocates around mental health or suicide. Opportunities for advocacy at local, state and national levels will improve funding, access and justice in the many ways mental health intersects with public policy.

We’re excited about what comes next, even as we recognize the range of questions that remain. We still have those funds to deploy, but answers will come. We’ve just begun to link with people in other states who are engaging in similar efforts through The United Methodist Church, and we wonder if we might be stronger together.

PHOTO: Erica Shannon Stueve

In the meantime, we are finding ourselves inspired by a comment we heard at our most recent task force meeting. As we gathered, one of our members, the Rev. Paul Daniel – the executive director of a mental health center – was sharing about the outpouring of support his community received in the wake of devastating tornadoes this past summer. “It’s overwhelming to be loved like that,” he said, describing with wonder and gratitude how community and church resources had come together to address needs and offer tangible help.

As we transitioned from that opening conversation into our work around mental health, those words stayed with us. “It’s overwhelming to be loved like that.” What if, through the work we do as a task force and as a network of United Methodists (and more!) around Iowa, we could evoke that kind of response among those in our midst who are dealing with mental health challenges? “It’s overwhelming to be loved like that.” May it be so.

* Erica Shannon Stueve is a lay leader and conference parliamentarian in the Iowa Annual Conference and an attorney for the Iowa Primary Care Association. Rev. Lee Schott is a pastor at Women in the Well UMC, a congregation in the Mitchellville Women’s Prison in Iowa. 

The Iowa Annual Conference’s focus on mental health is one of many ways The United Methodist Church engages in health ministries. Abundant health is building a network of United Methodists reengaged in lifesaving health ministries around the world. For more information about the Iowa United Methodist Mental Health Task Force, or to share what you are doing where YOU are, check out our link and be in touch with us!