Mental Health First Aid Addresses Care Gap in Iowa Communities


June 5, 2024, 1:57 pm | Jolene McCoy

AMES, Iowa – More than a million Iowans live in communities without enough mental health professionals to meet local needs. To address this issue, people throughout the state are participating in Mental Health First Aid, learning to be aware of mental health risk factors and warning signs. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach trains adults at workplaces, as well as individuals who support Iowans and their families, including school and human services personnel. Participants learn strategies for how to help people in crisis and non-crisis situations, and where to turn for help.

Struggling with mental health is a challenge people often face alone. The stigma around seeking care and a lack of awareness about available resources creates barriers that prevent people from seeking help. Combined with the fact that 57% of Iowa communities are facing a shortage in access to mental health care, many Iowans are left to manage depression and anxiety on their own.

Two women sitting by a table in a library.Helping people receive the care they need is the goal of Mental Health First Aid, according to David Brown, behavioral health state specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach. “Iowa is 45th in the nation as far as mental health providers per capita,” he said. “It’s important for Iowans to be willing to engage with those who are struggling.”

Since 2018, ISU Extension and Outreach has certified more than 2,200 individuals in Mental Health First Aid. ISU Extension and Outreach offers the program in partnership with organizations that provide community outreach, such as the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center, and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“Our goal is to train one of every 15 Iowans so that we can reach all Iowans,” said Kimberly Cavalier, a human sciences specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach. “We need more people trained so that we can increase mental health awareness in every corner of Iowa.”

The Iowa Department for the Blind has offered Mental Health First Aid training twice to its staff. Chief Information Officer Connie Mendenhall said the training is important for department staff to have because their work extends beyond their clients to their families and care teams.

Mental Health First Aid training session in classroom.“We come across all kinds of people and it is not uncommon to come across somebody in crisis. This training makes you more aware of the words they are not saying,” she said. “I think we listen a little more closely to each other than we did before.”

Leland Smith, Instructional Materials Center librarian for the Iowa Department for the Blind, said he was surprised to learn how much information and services for mental health issues have changed. “Mental health impacts everyone, so having the tools and training to address situations as they come up and knowing what to do is valuable for anyone. We are all people and we all have the same feelings and struggles,” he said. “It’s very easy and straightforward and isn’t something to be afraid of.”

Smith said Mental Health First Aid training created new pathways for communication among Iowa Department for the Blind staff. “This training was impactful for us as a team. We could hear and share stories and build a greater understanding and openness in our agency,” he said. “We all encounter people in our lives who face barriers and challenges that we can help them walk through and point them toward the right resources.”

Support for mental health issues has become increasingly important since the 2020 pandemic, according to Brown. “What we know now is that the majority of people in Iowa and the nation who are experiencing some sort of substance use or mental health challenge typically do not seek out a mental health professional,” he said.

“Individuals don’t get the opportunity to get help because no one is suggesting it,” he added. “We need to have people more willing to respond, to engage.”


Accessibility Ensures Equal Access for Mental Health First Aid

QWERTY keyboard with braille line.ISU Extension and Outreach Mental Health First Aid trainings for staff at the Iowa Department for the Blind demonstrate how training materials, resources and tools can be made accessible for the engagement needs of specific audiences.

The two organizations collaborated to make the training materials screen-reader accessible, to create Braille-ready files, and to expand video content with audio enhancements. ISU Extension and Outreach human sciences specialists, who teach the classes, adjusted the learning experience to actively engage the participants in sharing their ideas and stories.

“Accessibility ensures equal access for everyone, whether that’s a book or a website or a document,” said Sarah Willeford, library director for the Iowa Library for the Blind and Print Disabled. “It means that whoever sits down to use it can use it without barriers. It does not have to be difficult or fancy or expensive.”

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