SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A mental health crisis among children in Illinois will be fought by streamlining and easing access to necessary treatment and coordinating between six separate state agencies, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday.
A report examining the capacity and condition of Illinois’ response to behavioral health in young people has been in the works for nearly a year. It sketches avenues to help families understand mental illness, then makes it easier for them to get required care without navigating, in Pritzker’s words, the “serpentine” paths of disparate state agencies.
“Government doesn’t work very well between silos of one department and another,” Pritzker said at a school in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. “People feel like they have territory that they need to protect. And the fact is that our territory is all of the children of the state of Illinois.”
The mental health of children nationwide rapidly unraveled during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2021 found 44% of American children had depressive episodes lasting at least two weeks and nearly half had thought about suicide, according to the report.
Lawmakers and advocates weary of wrestling with seemingly unyielding bureaucracies were impressed by the number of agencies working together.
“You think of a parent who’s in crisis at their wit’s end … having to call each and every one of these agencies and trying to keep track of it,” said Senate Public Health Committee Chairperson Karina Villa, a West Chicago Democrat. “All they want is to get their baby the help that they need. Now we have a blueprint as to how they’re going to be able to do that.”
The report’s authors were a team led by Dana Weiner, on loan from the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, where she is senior policy fellow.
“What families (should) experience is a simplified, centralized, clear way to get access to services to understand what their children are struggling with and to identify the things that might help address those challenges,” Weiner said.
Friday’s announcement marks the beginning of work to ready the plan for implementation, a report on which Pritzker expects by October. There’s $22.8 million in the governor’s fiscal 2024 budget proposal to complete the planning.
The report identifies technological, practical, legislative and other means for marshaling the expertise among the Departments of Human Services, Children and Family Services, Juvenile Justice, Healthcare and Family Services, Public Health and the State Board of Education.
The program must be agile for responding to changing needs, given the volatility of mental illness, the report says. It suggests widespread screening of children which might telegraph future suffering and emphasizes the necessity of early intervention.
Recognizing problems quickly is critical, Weiner said. The U.S. Surgeon General discovered in a 2021 study that on average, there is an 11-year gap between recognizing a child’s potential mental health issue and that child getting treatment.
At the same time, the report recognizes that worker shortages across industries will severely impact the mental health care program. It says the government must provide incentives, both in making education more attainable but also drawing upon paraprofessionals or aides to conduct critical work which doesn’t need extensive formal education.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford of Maywood noted the planned outreach to parents to help them understand an issue, dismiss the stigma and recognize that a child’s altered behavior or mood swings aren’t necessarily circumstances the child “will grow out of.”
“Too often, children’s mental and behavioral health challenges are overlooked or minimized by adults, believing that these struggles are something their child can overcome on their own,” Lightford said. “The social stigma around seeking mental health care … unfortunately leaves many children to not get the care they need.”
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