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EDITORIAL: Iowa falling short on mental health

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier - 9/10/2017

Sept. 10--After former Gov. Terry Branstad unilaterally closed two of Iowa's four mental institutions, Iowa ranked last in psychiatric beds per capita -- hardly a badge of honor when confronting a national concern.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 44 million Americans had some form of mental illness in 2015 -- one in five people aged 18 and older. The Advocacy Treatment Center reported Iowa had been reduced to 64 beds for adults from 149.

A USA TODAY story about successful athletes dealing with mental illness makes it clear it can afflict anyone.

After being arrested a second time for drunken driving three years ago, all-time great Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps stayed in his bedroom for four days, despondent and contemplating suicide.

"I didn't want to be alive," he said. "I didn't want to see anyone else. I didn't want to see another day." Friends and family convinced him to get professional help

"You're at the highest level of sport you can possibly get," Phelps said. "Then you'll want to do something new, something crazy. That high to low can put you in a dark spot."

"When I'd see my therapist, I remember beforehand how much I hated going," he added. "Then every time after I'd walk out the door, I felt like a million bucks."

When Phelps' friend and fellow Olympian swimmer Allison Schmitt quit a race in 2015, "I gave up, but I didn't know why."

Phelps approached her. She opened up about contemplating suicide, driving off a road on a snowy night like it was an accident.

"Therapy is the best tool I've encountered in this life," she said. "For a lot of athletes, their arena is their sanctuary. But for a lot of struggling people in society, the therapy room is a place of peace they can't find anywhere else."

Former Iowa State All-American basketball player Royce White's NBA career was short-circuited by anxiety and fear of flying.

"It's been painted as me wanting special treatment because of anxiety," he said. "No, I'm saying I need the same type of support as anyone who is struggling. Call it whatever the hell you want to call it. There are specific injury doctors for players" with bum knees and sprained ankles.

NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall spent three months at a psychiatric hospital associated with Harvard University in 2011 where he was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. He was impressed by others in group therapy.

"Here I am, this big macho football player, and these people were fighting for their lives," Marshall said. "That was when I truly realized what being tough meant. I realized that someone needs to stand up for these people. This has become my purpose on this planet."

St. Louis Cardinals' pitcher Rick Ankiel was a pitching phenom until he couldn't throw the ball to home plate.

"It was beyond frightening and scary," he said. "We're getting paid millions, but that doesn't mean we're immune to inner pain and torture."

He tried vodka and marijuana to calm his nerves before discovering sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, author of "The Mental Game of Baseball."

"Having a culture conducive to mental health is big," he said. "I think we're getting there. Just about every (major league) team has a psychology department. I'm glad we're starting to understand. We're all human, and I think the more we talk about mental health, the better."

Imani Boyette, 22, of the WNBA'sAtlanta Dream, suffers from clinically diagnosed severe depression, which she believes stems from being raped as a child by a family member and her biological makeup. She tried to commit suicide three times.

Until recently she quit talking about her problems because "at a certain point, it just gets easier to shut up because people get sick of hearing you're not OK when you're not sick on the outside" or being perceived as "this delicate piece of china."

Illinois State University sociology professor Wilbert Leonard thinks prominent athletes can help lessen mental illness' social stigma.

"It's John Wayne syndrome, that stiff upper lip -- keeping your feelings to yourself and not letting anyone know you're hurting," he said. "That plays out in the sports world, and it plays out in the larger society."

Branstad's claim Iowa has sufficient beds doesn't hold up, as Marion County Sheriff Jason Sandholdt told the Pella Journal-Express.

"When people say there's enough beds in the state of Iowa, they're crazy," he said. "There's not enough beds for that 32-year-old, intoxicated person that has bipolar or schizophrenic episodes, and they're wanting to hurt themselves or hurt someone else."

Iowa needs to recognize making mental health therapy readily available is good public policy -- and much more cost-efficient than warehousing people who can't cope in jails and prisons, if it comes to that.

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(c)2017 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)

Visit Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) at www.wcfcourier.com

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