Jennifer Robbins

OTTUMWA — Jennifer Robbins, Wapello County general assistance director and South Central Behavioral Health Region (SCBHR) CEO, said she puts on a lot of hats when it comes to serving on both organizations.

She has been director since 2014 and CEO since 2018. She said a lot of people don’t realize the work that goes into providing the different services.

Robbins is responsible for budgets and financial matters. Other tasks include following procedures and policies that have been approved by the Board of Supervisors, Department of Human Services and serving as key communicator between departments involved with mental health disabilities services.

The roles she said have barriers and benefits.

“The challenge with the administration of serving people with disabilities is the constant funding,” she said, “the funding is not stable. Currently we are funded by property tax dollars. Through the past three, four years the expectations for regions to build services for complex needs is that it works toward 27.”

“Another barrier is providers and workforce,” she added. “We have many great providers in creating some of the services for complex needs.”

The benefits she said are “providing a great community mental health center that’s partnered with the region in building a lot of our crisis services that our regions have to have… the governor has made a proposal that property tax will be decreased and they’re wanting to look at one cent sales tax with mental health and receiving a portion of that.”

Crisis centers are another benefit. “It’s great to see a community support service for people who are trying to avoid going into a high level care. When you see a success story, you’re always like this is a great service. We have a local crisis team that meets people where they are.”

The SCBHR does meet “people where they are.” They are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They serve those with mental illnesses, and those with disabilities. “Instead of people having to go to the ER to get that crisis evaluation — a lot of things have came from that team of clinicians and experts,” she said.

People with disabilities can get an intellectual disability waiver that has a set of core services such as supportive community living, supported employment, and respite.

Those with mental health issues can get medication, therapy, medication monitoring, prescribing, assessments, mobile crisis teams, and more. Residents with brain injuries also get the same services and those with developmental disabilities get supported employment.

“Through the Iowa Administrative Code we have a whole list of services,” Robbins explained, “that every region across the state of Iowa has to make available to anyone who has diagnosis of mental health or intellectual disabilities. However our region chooses to also find people with brain injuries and developmental disabilities.”

Many people she said have seen progress in their mental health and positives after using the services. In 2019, 3,295 people got services for their mental illnesses and disabilities at SCBHR and 1,300 needs were met under general assistance. Children, Robbins said, were a part of these statistics.

As more people are in need of mental health services, Robbins also sees the need to talk about mental health and recognize the different mental illnesses. She said it is important for those who have mental illnesses and for those supporting someone with mental illnesses.

“I do believe, one, that mental health has a stigma,” she said, “but I believe that there’s some myth busting to the stigma happening both at lower levels of education in your grade schools and middle schools and then also through the experience. I believe that more people are becoming more aware of what mental health can look like and we are decreasing the shame a little bit to mental health.”

Does Robbins believe people are moving in the right direction toward mental health?

“I do believe that we’re moving in the right direction,” she said, “ I do think there’s still a lot of support that needs to happen. Absolutely. But I think we’re talking about it more and having more open conversations about it and it’s not as stigmatized to be swept under the rug.”

In moving forward with her roles, Robbins wants to continue letting residents know about the different services.

“... We’re responsible to making sure when people walk through our door, they feel welcome and link them to resources that better their lives,” she said. “We would never want to create an atmosphere that’s unwelcoming. It really goes back to investing in your direct staff to give them the tools that will better prepare them and helping people in time of need.”

Chiara Romero can be reached at cromero@ottumwacourier.com.

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