By Rod Boshart

Calling it a "milestone day for mental health in Iowa," Gov. Kim Reynolds signed two significant pieces of legislation in to law Thursday that she said will bolster Iowa's commitment to treating children and adults facing mental health challenges with dignity and compassion.

With mental-health service advocates, parents and friends of suicide victims and state lawmakers gathered on the Capitol balcony and first-floor rotunda, the governor signed into law House File 2456 dealing with comprehensive mental-health upgrades and Senate File 2113 to set up required training for Iowa's educators to recognize and address the signs of a young person facing a mental-health crisis.

In so doing, Reynolds said the dual legislation represented a significant development but by no means meant the problems facing Iowans will be immediately addressed and that additional work will be needed to address issues facing some of Iowa's most-vulnerable citizens.

"Creating a mental health system that we envision is complex and it can't happen overnight. I look forward to building on the momentum that we have here today," Reynolds told the assembled crowd. "There is more to come."

To that end, the governor also announced her intention to sign an executive order establishing a platform to begin developing a children's mental health service system based on the 2018 Children's Advisory Committee recommendations -- a process that has been in the works by a legislative group for more than two years.

"Today is a significant day. This is an acknowledgment of the difficulties that have existed here in Iowa, of the people who haven't gotten the help that they've needed," said Mary Neubauer, who advocated for the comprehensive changes after dealing with a situation where her Russian-born adopted son took his life four days before his 19th birthday.

"This puts in place a framework for the real work to begin to develop the programs and to put in place the capacity and the help that is needed. Do I think that these bills are going to solve every ill out there? No. I don't know a bill that could. But it's a huge, positive affirmation," she added. "The follow through is absolutely critical. This is an important starting point that, frankly, we have never reached before in Iowa, but truly now the real work begins."

"This bill is a critical first step but let me be clear this is just the first step. We cannot stop here. Our children's mental health and well-being system isn't where it needs to be."

- Gov. Kim Reynolds

After signing the separate bills, Reynolds joined the onlookers in applauding the legislators present who unanimously approved both bipartisan measures.

House File 2456 has a broad scope -- dealing with commitments, licensing of subacute mental health facilities, disclosure of mental health issues to law enforcement, video conferencing of hospitalization hearings, transportation service contracts, mental health and disability services quarterly reports, regional core services, reduction of fund balances from mental health regions, commitment process report and a tertiary care psychiatric hospitals report.

Among the features of the legislation are the establishment of six new access centers offering short-term assistance to Iowans in crisis situations as a lower-cost option to psychiatric hospital units often already at capacity.

The bill also removes the state's cap on subacute beds, expands treatment teams that monitor and assist Iowans with chronic mental illness, improves communication and processes between mental-health professionals and law enforcement, allows providers rather than judges to make mental health care determinations in the least restrictive environment, and includes other elements designed to enhance crisis-intervention and evidence-based services to de-escalate problems in a proper treatment setting.

"You're not going to put together a ton of new services in a year but I'm hoping that this is really going to propel things forward," said Peggy Huppert, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Iowa. "We are excited about the significant progress these bills represent in improving our mental health system. They've both been a long time coming. To see them pass unanimously and be signed on the same day is thrilling."

Under Senate File 2113, Iowa school employees working with students would be required to have least one hour of training in suicide awareness and prevention annually. The measure requires the state Board of Education to adopt rules requiring school districts to adopt nationally recognized protocols by July 1, 2019, for recognizing the signs of a mental health crisis and referring those children to the appropriate services.

"This bill is a critical first step but let me be clear this is just the first step," said Reynolds. "We cannot stop here. Our children's mental health and well-being system isn't where it needs to be."

The legislation applies to school personnel who have regular contact with students and who hold a license, certificate, authorization, or statement of recognition from the state Board of Educational Examiners.

(c)2018 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)