SPECIAL REPORT: State of Mental Health: An Iowa family's struggl - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

SPECIAL REPORT: State of Mental Health: An Iowa family's struggle

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Feeling like you're out on an island; that's how an Iowa family describes the process of trying to find help for their son, who was struggling with mental illness.

Mary Neubauer, and her husband, Larry Loss, live in Des Moines. They believe the system in Iowa failed them, and now, all they're left with is their son's memory. 

The family is now pleading for change, so what happened to them, doesn't happen to other families in our state.

Mary and Larry adopted their son, Sergei, from Russia when he was 11 years old. 

"He brought joy to those around him, with his warm smile, quick wit, and wicked sense of humor," Mary said as she reads her son's obituary; she wrote it after Sergei died.

"He was a fun-loving teenager."

Sergei shined with the joy of life, lighting up in many moments the family captured over the years. He loved making art, especially in the kitchen.

"He was especially proud to have baked a homemade cherry pie with his grandma Louise.. and thought her cooking skills were ninja level, which was true."

Slivers of Sergei's obituary shine a light on who he was; they also reveal what lived behind his smile: a struggle with mental illness. 

Through many holidays, and years together, Mary and Larry found out his childhood in Russia, in an orphanage, was painful.

"There had been years and years of trauma in his life, " Mary said.

Those years of trauma surfaced, as Sergei was eventually diagnosed with PTSD, depression, survivor's guilt, anxiety, and others, including a condition in which Sergei pulled out his own hair.

Mary and Larry said family counseling did help, but not enough to prevent what they call, the crisis point. 

"He would say so many times mom I've lost my hope, I'm so scared, I want to get my hope back... "

Sergei tried committing suicide earlier this year in March; he tried again in May. 

"We did our best to move heaven and earth to find the right providers."

Mary and Larry said Sergei was taken to Iowa Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines, but just for a matter of days. Short-term care they were able to find, but when they asked about long-term care, they said they weren't given a clear answer. 

"We were saying please tell us where we can take him for help and people often just said, I don't know," Mary said. 

They contacted the two mental health facilities in Iowa; one in Independence, the other in Cherokee. Mary says they were told they are not in the Independence service area and to call Cherokee. She says that facility told them, only short-term care was available for Sergei. 

Their son already received short-term care at the hospital, so Mary and Larry began searching the country for other options. 

"At our computers we're searching for facilities across the country to send our child to, you don't know anything more than what you're seeing on a web page," Larry said.

They researched places for long-term care; for Mary and Larry, that meant a place their son could go for a month, maybe a couple of months, to receive around-the-clock care.

Sergei ended up at a facility in Arizona, then one in California. He spent a total of four months out of state, and entirely at the family's expense. 

KWWL asked the Iowa Department of Human Services, can someone go somewhere for a month in Iowa to get help? DHS responded, in part, "Yes, but it is rare." 

Mary and Larry couldn't find that in the state of Iowa.

"Extremely, extremely stressful. Extremely hard. You're out on an island, looking for help," Larry said.

When Sergei came back home to Des Moines, his parents say he seemed better, for a little while. But, they say his depression kicked in again.

Sergei took his own life on September 25. His funeral was held four days later, on, what would have been, his 19th birthday.

After going through their struggle, Mary and Larry are now turning to Iowa lawmakers, hoping to see a change.

"I say to the state of Iowa, is this what we're comfortable reducing people to? Because, don't miss this -- that is what we are reducing people to." 

KWWL brought their story to the attention of Democratic State Senator Jeff Danielson, and Republican State Representative Walt Rogers. 

"I think we are doing an OK job, we are working hard to improve the system," Rep. Rogers said.

Se. Danielson responded, "I think we are in a crisis.... We have either closed or underfunded any other options they have and that's wrong."

Mary asks, think outside the box when it comes to places for long-term care. Is there any unused space, and that space could be turned into more mental health help?

"Here in Black Hawk County we didn't build a new building, we didn't spend a bunch of money."

Sen. Danielson is referring to the Black Hawk County Crisis Center. While that's meant to provide care for just a few days, it's possibly a springboard for new ideas. 

"It doesn't have to be new fancy and expensive, we can find ways to make it work with existing facilities," Sen. Danielson said.

"Long-term care I think continues to be an issue for us," Rep. Rogers said. He believes the root of the issue is tri-fold: Identification, access and funding.

"We've got some problems we need to address, and we need to address them quickly."

Ultimately, Mary believes the system in Iowa failed her son. She explains in Sergei's obituary, "Iowa did not have adequate resources during Sergei's time of crisis."

"Agree. There are a lot of ways to measure it and almost every way you measure it, we are under-performing," Sen. Danielson responded.

"Um, I'm not sure. The issue is becoming a major issue not only in the state of Iowa but across the country. Are we in the process of trying to catch up with the overall problem? Yes." Rep. Rogers responded. 

Mary and Larry will continue telling their story... not only to help other families, but for Sergei.

"By pushing for change, then that's what we want to do. I feel we are honoring Sergei and Sergei's memory by doing that." 

KWWL also asked Sen. Danielson and Rep. Rogers this: could we see actual legislation in the upcoming session? If so, could a bill get passed? Both told us, they don't know; they said this is an issue every Iowa lawmaker needs to be talking about, and it'll take everyone working together to make a change. 

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