Members of the Illinois State Senate’s Behavioral and Mental Health Committee gathered Thursday morning in Chicago to hear a number of reports from experts about the mental health and wellbeing challenges facing local young people.
Over the last several years, schools and mental health clinics have documented how the COVID-19 pandemic, gun violence, the widespread use of social media among children and more have contributed to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation among young people nationwide.
The issues also have impacted Evanston’s youth, and administrators at Evanston Township High School have spoken at board meetings in recent months about the need for expanded student support services and the importance of simply talking about mental health regularly.
Thirty-three percent of all ETHS students said that stress impacted their daily lives for at least 11 days of the past month, while 30% said they felt sad or hopeless most days for at least two weeks, according to student survey responses in the 2020-2021 school year.
ETHS also saw a 104% increase in the number of suicide risk assessments from the fall quarter of 2019 to the fall quarter of 2021, according to data presented to the board in March by Associate Principal for Student Services Taya Kinzie and Principal Marcus Campbell.
Based on data collected by the student services staff, 106 students were hospitalized for psychiatric concerns in the 2020-21 school year, down from 116 during the prior year. But 26 students experienced multiple hospitalizations, compared with just 12 the year before.
“You can’t have physical health without having mental health, and this is a point that we need to drive home for everybody,” said State Sen. Laura Fine, who represents Evanston and other northern suburbs. “It’s OK to talk about your mental health issue, and it should be no different than getting a physical health issue treated.”
Yet in Illinois, one of the most dire problems confronting psychiatric care is a lack of beds at inpatient facilities where children can go to get the services and support they need, Dr. John Walkup of Lurie Children’s Hospital said at Thursday’s hearing.
Not having enough beds to meet the demand for psychiatric care among Illinois youth has also forced local schools to send students out of state to receive the inpatient treatment they need, Fine said. As a result, the most pressing action the state has to take is setting up more staffed facilities with more beds to treat young people experiencing mental health crises.
“When we talk about beds, we’re talking about where a child can go in a crisis, when we’re afraid that they can be a harm to themselves or to someone else,” Fine told the RoundTable during an interview after Thursday’s hearing. “Where can they go to get their needs met?”
During this spring’s legislative session, the state passed several laws designed to increase investments in mental health support and expand its capacity to treat those who need help. In March, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the creation of the Children’s Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative, led by University of Chicago child welfare expert Dana Weiner.
Weiner spoke to state senators at Thursday’s committee hearing about the work underway on the initiative, and said one of her main goals is to increase collaboration across state departments to help find placements for children to receive inpatient services efficiently and effectively.
Weiner and her team are currently testing a new computer program to support those cooperation efforts so that the state can find the right services for each child in crisis.
The committee also discussed the topic of mental health services for minors in juvenile detention centers around the state. Historically, those centers have taken care of the basic physical needs of detained children, but they often do not have the resources to offer mental health care for the kids who need it the most.
“Some of these kids who are in detention are in detention because they’ve done something that can be traced back to whatever their mental health issue might be,” Fine said. “And if they can get the proper services they need and the help they need, it would put them on a completely different track.”
But one of the positive developments to come out of the pandemic is the expansion of telehealth services, according to Fine.
Since telehealth appointments became more common when the pandemic first hit in March 2020, many more people have sought psychiatric support because they feel more comfortable doing so in their own home, where they may feel less stigmatized than being seen in-person.
“From my perspective, I think people need to feel comfortable talking about mental health, and I think there needs to be a place for somebody to go, because when you’re in crisis, that crisis can’t wait,” Fine told the RoundTable. “We need to make sure that you have that accessible, quality health care for mental health, as well. That would be a game changer for so many lives.”