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Most of area youth are making “good healthy choices,” says Keiaffa Green.

But, says the director of the Benton County Above the Influence Coalition, “There are pockets of those who don’t.” Green is seeking to help empower all youth in the county to be able to make the right choices, regardless of their circumstances.

How to reach out to those people, and their families, was the topic of a panel discussion on behavior health on Tuesday in Vinton.

The panel included Green; Lori Hagg, a family support/early access professional at Horizons; Vinton-Shellsburg High School academic advisor Sandy Hamilton; Public Health Director Nancy Farmer; interim Benton County Social Services Director Carol Zander; and Elise Healzer, an outpatient therapist with Life-Line Resources.

Lindsey Ungs of the Area Substance Abuse Council (ASAC) organized the meeting.

One of the challenges, says Hagg, are families with children who grew up without learning at home what a parent should do.

Many of the clients at Horizons are children of young parents.

“Many of them never saw a parent go to work,” said Hagg. “We are working with parents who didn’t get help when they were younger and needed it. They are not bad parents; they just don’t have any idea of what a parent should do.”

The challenges Hagg identified included the stigma of being identified as a parent in need, especially in a small community. The lack of employment and employment training opportunities also makes it harder for those young parents to improve their quality of life.

“There are not a lot of jobs they can do, or resources to help them learn job skills,” she said.

One of Zander’s duties at Benton County Social Services is managing the mental health commitments – emergency situations where a family seeks help in placing someone in a treatment facility, even though that person does not want to go.

“People don’t want to face their problems until it’s almost too late,” she said. In the past 16 months, there have been 38 involuntary commitments. Most involve mental health problems. Some involve substance abuse (including K2 and similar chemicals) and a few are duo-diagnosis commitments.

A shortage of beds also requires local authorities to send those patients throughout Iowa to find help, said Zander.

Next year, the state is reorganizing mental health services; Benton County will join Bremer, Buchanan, Delaware, Dubuque, Iowa Johnson, Jones and Linn counties in a 9-county region. The regions, said Zander, “are designed to make services more equal across the region.” The kinds of services offered (and funded) have varied significantly from county to county.

The stigma attached to mental health issues is also a barrier to seeking help, said Zander.

Farmer, told the audience of about on dozen local leaders that the Public Health Department has a role in conducting a community health needs assessment. One of those tools, the bi-annual Iowa Youth Survey, indicated that a “relatively high number of teens indicated that they had thought of or had even planned suicide.”

Also, more than a third of students said they had no ethical values against the use of drugs or alcohol.

Hamilton told the group that over her years in education, she has notices cultural changes, including more adults who are accepting of drug and alcohol abuse.

“There are fewer role model who demonstrate the appropriate way to handle things and a growing number of students who just don’t have hope for the future,” Hamilton said.

Single parents, families where both parents work, and children who were born to parents who had abused drugs are factors that Hamilton identified as challenges.

After the panelists introduced themselves, discussed their role in the community and shared their concerns, the audience members asked questions, and discussed solutions.

Greg Walston of the ISU extension said that community is an important part of the cure.

“We need to make people feel welcome. Like they fit in, like they can participate and do well,” he said. “The solution will come from people caring for each other.”

Members of the VSHS Reality Check group attended the meeting. They are planning activities for World Kindness Week the second week in November.

Hagg cited a study which indicated that in addition to parents, children thrive best when they have at least three healthy relationships with other adults (grandparents, friends, teachers, etc.).

Hamilton said that while there is not a formal organization of mentors, there are many adults who volunteer in the schools.

After the event, Ungs said the goal of the meeting was to make new connections which will allow “more great minds to work on some of the toughest issues” facing the county.

“I was pleased with the turn out and with the questions asked by the guests. Our panelists had insightful answers. I appreciated that the panelists and guests gave up their time to come and discuss behavioral health in Benton County,” she said.

See the Benton County results from the Iowa Youth Survey survey HERE.



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