DMU is nation’s first medical school to require mental health course

In 2018, Des Moines University became the nation’s first medical school to partner with the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), the nation’s leading advocacy group for mental illness, to offer its provider education program to third-year osteopathic medical students. All medical schools train students how to diagnose mental illness, but DMU takes that further by requiring its D.O. students to recognize mental illness among their patients and then treat them or refer them to appropriate care givers.

DMU has received funding for the program from private and public entities including the state of Iowa. As the Iowa General Assembly begins its legislative session, University leaders are working with elected officials to have that state funding continued through 2021. A recent news story on WHO-TV about DMU being a pioneer in preparing its medical students to better serve patients and families snagged a lot of attention on Twitter and Facebook.

“Des Moines University proudly steps into a national leadership role by partnering with NAMI in expanding expectations for training of future health care providers. Helping our students gain a greater understanding of the lived experience for those struggling with a mental illness was the impetus for expanding our curriculum to accommodate this course,” says DMU President and CEO Angela Walker Franklin, Ph.D. Also a clinical psychologist, President Franklin is “very much aware” of the stigma still associated with mental illness.

“I find it vital for future care givers to be better informed of the personal and familial aspects of these conditions,” she says. “An overarching theme that exists at DMU is a sincere desire to respect and embrace difference and show compassion for all. Through this course and partnership with NAMI, we set a standard that all patients regardless of their presenting conditions will be treated with the same level of respect and understanding.”

In the WHO-TV news story, Lisa Streyffeler, Ph.D., chair of behavioral medicine, talked about the negative ripple effect of mental illness on a person’s overall health. “There are some really horrifying statistics that folks with severe mental illnesses die on average 15 to 30 years earlier than people who don’t have those illnesses. And that’s not about suicide,” she said. “That’s about untreated heart disease, untreated hypertension, those kinds of things. So we were looking for a way to help our students become more comfortable with folks with severe mental illnesses.”

The University doesn’t want to corner the market on providing this training to students, however: In 2018, Dr. Streyffeler, Teri Brister, Ph.D., L.P.C., director of information and support at NAMI National, and Peggy Huppert, NAMI Iowa executive director, gave a presentation at the National NAMI conference about the DMU course, which was then a pilot. Partnering with a medical school to deliver this training has been a longtime goal of Dr. Brister. 

“I know I’ve said it many times, but I genuinely believe that the vision that DMU had to incorporate the lived experience of mental illness into the training for future physicians is going to help set the expectation that this become a standard of training in health care professionals,” she said after the conference.

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