PARKERSBURG — The bucolic setting of the Becker family’s rural Parkersburg home is a picture-perfect Iowa postcard. Lush trees shade the winding driveway leading to the house. A wily Jack Russell terrier bounds across the property, chasing squirrels and other critters. Flower pots and vintage decor provide pleasant pops of color.
The tranquil setting belies the scene inside the home 10 years ago, where a family’s gut-wrenching grief played out as their son descended into the grips of schizophrenia and committed an unthinkable act.
Today, a decade after her mentally ill son, Mark, shot and killed beloved Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas, Joan Becker says she has finally found peace.
“Our family has done a lot of healing,” Becker said. “There are days that it seems like it was yesterday, but then it seems like it’s been 50 years. It’s always there. You try to come to some kind of peace.”
Mark Becker is serving a life sentence for the June 24, 2009, murder of Thomas, his high school football coach. He was 24 when he walked into the weight room at Aplington-Parkersburg High School and fatally shot the nationally acclaimed coach, who helped lead Parkersburg’s 2008 tornado recovery efforts and placed several athletes in the National Football League.
Coming to terms with the tragedy has been a long road, Joan Becker said, but her faith and community have eased some of the pain. She’s also been a force for change in the mental health care system, campaigning across the country to call attention to gaps in the system, including delayed diagnoses and often scattershot treatment.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’m tired. I’m worn out trying to move the needle,” Becker said. “But I am seeing change. The response and the dialogue have been encouraging.”
A monumental move, Joan Becker said, was the May 1 signing of a bill by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds that creates a mental health system for children. The new law, which takes effect July 1 and echoes the 2012 Iowa adult mental health law, “requires core services for children, regional crisis stabilization, mobile response teams, 24-hour hotline access to services, and $1.2 million for home and community-based children’s mental health services,” reported The Associated Press.
“We really made tremendous strides in just a few years. Iowa was one of just four states with no children’s mental health system, to our everlasting shame,” said Peggy Huppert, director of mental health organization NAMI Iowa. “Now we have the policy in place, and that’s really just the beginning.”
The bill passed with bipartisan votes, but fell short of the full funding Reynolds requested. Inadequate funding means implementing the new law will be a challenge, as it has been for the adult mental health law passed before it, Huppert said.
“Three-quarters of adult mental health are funded through Medicaid. Reimbursement rates remain too low. We have quite a few services that on paper are supposed to be available but aren’t because there are few providers willing to do those services for the rate the state is paying,” she explained.
Still, Huppert is encouraged lawmakers and political candidates are finally listening.
“Mental health has really come into the spotlight as an issue,” she said. “The tipping point was the collective aim of thousands of Iowans who had to deal with a system that was failing and letting them down.”
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Legislation in recent years has required law enforcement officers to receive mental health training and has allowed for better communication among health care providers to improve care, said Tom Eachus, executive director at UnityPoint Health Black Hawk Grundy Mental Health Center in Waterloo.
“Care coordination has been elevated probably 10-fold over the last couple of years,” he said. “We’ve changed Iowa’s confidentiality law. We can now provide mental health information to other individuals and entities if it’s to improve the overall health of the patient.”
Care coordination is a key talking point for Joan Becker. As a teen, Mark Becker was hearing voices. Over several years, the delusions escalated. Mark fought off unseen assailants, shouting to his father that “they” were on the ceiling, in the walls, under the bed. The family sought help from many directions, including law enforcement.
Mark was committed for a week to a mental health facility for evaluation, where the Beckers were confident their son was meeting with professionals who would “get to the root of what was wrong with Mark.” What they discovered, Joan wrote in her 2015 book, “Sentenced to Life: The Mark Becker Story — Mental Illness, Tragedy, and Transformation,” was that their son spent hardly any time with a psychiatrist or doctor, although he agreed to see a counselor and take prescribed medication following his release.
“His care was so scattered. We couldn’t get anyone to listen. It was a huge breakdown,” Joan Becker said. “I do believe with all my heart things could have been different. He absolutely never, ever would have done this in his right mind. But the illness is insidious.”
Mark Becker is now housed at the Iowa Medical and Classifications Center and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Parents Joan and Dave Becker visit him monthly. They saw their son most recently on June 2, the day before his 34th birthday.
“He was very emotional that day,” Joan Becker said. “He struggles with what he’s done. It took him seven years to realize he has mental illness. He’s getting good psychiatric care now.”
Eachus said the national dialogue on mental illness “has risen to a level that we haven’t seen before. We’re talking about it more.”
Speaking out has been a rallying cry for Joan Becker. But this year, for her own mental health, she pared back the number of speaking engagements on her schedule. She’ll be the keynote speaker in September at a fundraiser breakfast for Black Hawk-Grundy Mental Health Center. It’s just one of two engagements on her 2019 calendar.
“People are so afraid to talk about mental health,” Joan Becker said. “Dave and I decided we do not have to stay quiet about it. We’ve tried so hard over the last 10 years to open that door. We talk about cancer. We talk about diabetes. Why are we so afraid to talk about illness in the brain?”
Huppert said mental health issues touch everyone in some way. “One in five Iowans experience mental health challenges in any given year. That’s 600,000 people. You know someone — it could be the person working next to you, your pastor, someone in a leadership position. It’s there.”
Joan Becker said it took nearly seven years of treatment in prison for her son to even be aware of his diagnosis.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” she said. “It took him a long time to recognize us as Mom and Dad. He thought we were out to get him. Around the seven-year mark we arrived to visit and he said, ‘Mom, I want to tell you something. You were right. I have mental illness.’ From that point on there was a peace with Mark.”