A frantic mother seeks out an Iowa family who just lost a teenage son to suicide
Learn some quick facts about depression and see how the signs can manifest differently in men, women and children. Daniel Finney / The Register
The telephone rang at the Clive home of Mary Neubauer and her husband, Larry Loss, Sunday night.
A woman from Waterloo read my column about last week's suicide of the couple's 18-year-old son, Sergei, who struggled with severe mental illness brought on by his childhood in Russian orphanages.
The Waterloo woman told Neubauer her own 14-year-old daughter struggles with mental illness. She hoped Neubauer could help her find resources for her daughter.
Neubauer offered the woman some suggestions but found herself at a loss for words.
"I felt like such an unprepared person talking to that mom … because I am not an expert on the topic she was asking about," Neubauer said. "She did not have any of the information I was able to share with her, so I know my research for Sergei was not in vain."
The sobbing woman was desperate to find help because she couldn't find any in Iowa, Neubauer said.
"I told her that I totally understand, and I know," she said. "Do I ever know."
Think about that exchange for a moment: A mother from Waterloo is so desperate for help she will call a total stranger — another mom whose son couldn't be helped by a state system that was clearly, overwhelmingly inadequate — in the slim hope of some direction to save her own daughter.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in the country. Here's how to see the signs. Daniel P. Finney/The Register
If that anecdote doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the state of mental health care in Iowa, I don't know what will.
Mary Neubauer and Larry Loss, both executives for the Iowa Lottery, adopted Sergei from Russia when he was 10.
They showered him with love and care, but the gauntlet of horrific abuse he endured as a small child severely altered the chemistry of his brain and thinking patterns.
The serious abuses are called adverse childhood experiences, which seems like a benign name for something with such terrible consequences.
Those experiences essentially cause the brain to be wired in a way that makes it more susceptible to mental illness.
In Sergei's case, it manifested as acute anxiety, major depression, PTSD and a host of other ailments.
The couple used every resource they had to help Sergei. He attempted suicide twice.
With no beds available for chronic, severe mental illnesses, they sent Sergei, at their own expense, to treatment centers in Arizona and California.
As my friend and colleague Kathie Obradovich wrote this week, there are just over 650 private beds for roughly 137,000 Iowans who suffer from chronic and serious mental illness.
Most don’t need to be hospitalized, but a lot may need residential treatment at some point, Peggy Huppert, executive director of NAMI Iowa, told Obradovich.
“That’s the way mental illness works,” Huppert said. In Iowa, “we clearly don’t have the right kind of beds — the kind of beds that help someone like Sergei.”
Neubauer and Loss have heard from Iowa political leaders as well since their son's obituary.
U.S. Rep. David Young, a Van Meter Republican who represents central Iowa, met the couple at the National Alliance on Mental Illness walk Saturday. He told them he was concerned about mental health care.
Iowa Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat who represents parts of Des Moines, West Des Moines and Warren County, tweeted a link to my column.
Other lawmakers, mostly Democrats, privately reached out to Neubauer and Loss.
In a Monday news conference, both Obradovich and Gov. Kim Reynolds choked up when discussing mental health. Reynolds told Obradovich she had a cousin who was a suicide victim.
Still, well-meaning lawmakers and governors have no real plan. It's unfair to expect them to have legislation ready in the wake of one wrenching event that touched the hearts of Iowans and beyond.
The onus falls to us, the voters.
If you or your family are touched by mental illness, as I am every day of my life, we must hold our lawmakers accountable.
We must let them know it is unacceptable that Iowa is 49th in the country for public mental health beds.
We must call and write their offices. We must press candidates for specific answers on how they would help bring more psychiatrists, therapists and other mental health professionals to Iowa — and not just to metro Des Moines, but especially to rural counties where help can be hours away.
And we also must look within. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but I submit that perhaps a tax increase is necessary to build an infrastructure of mental wellness in Iowa.
Surely a state that can figure out a way to help Apple, the world's richest corporation, avoid paying hundreds of millions in state taxes can find a way to help pay for the care and infrastructure for the severely mentally ill in our state.
We rail against every cent the state takes from our paychecks as if we are being robbed at gunpoint.
In discourse, many of us treat anyone who uses a public service, from school breakfasts and lunches to health care, as if such people are lazy thieves unwilling to earn their way.
Loss and Neubauer have earned their way. They have well-paying state jobs.
They have decent health insurance benefits, but their insurance company was effectively useless when Sergei reached chronic stages. Even so, they had the resources to send him out of state.
"I shudder to think what it would be like for a family who didn't have the resources we did to help Sergei," Neubauer said.
I often invoke former Gov. Robert Ray, because he represents to me a more moderate time in politics.
He was a Republican who opposed the death penalty, favored limited abortion rights and fought against efforts to deny state welfare benefits to mothers with more than one child out of wedlock.
"Heaven help us when we don't have enough compassion to help those who need us," Ray said during his first campaign in 1968.
There are thousands of Iowans who need us. Do we have the compassion to help them?
Larry Loss and Mary Neubauer already have the answer as it stands today. They buried their son last week.
The question is, my fellow Iowans, what will we do about the future?
Daniel P. Finney, The Register's Metro Voice columnist, is a Drake University alumnus who grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @newsmanone.