McLean County has limited access to child psychiatrists. If youths in need are lucky enough to find one, they are often placed on a seemingly endless waitlist. Those who aren’t so lucky are often referred to a doctor outside of the county, and yes, another wait list.
McLean County Center for Human Services Director Tom Barr said there are two reasons for the short supply of youth psychiatrists.
"Fewer and fewer physicians are specializing in psychiatry, much less child psychiatry. And this is a nationwide phenomenon. It's not unique to McLean County, and it's not unique to Illinois,” Barr said. “What is unique to Illinois is some of the significant cuts that agencies like mine have received, particularly for psychiatric services."
In 2015, the state cut psychiatric funding for mental health centers. For CHS, that meant a $350,000 cut.
From 2016 to now, Barr said, the United Way also cut $100,000 in contributions to the CHS psychiatric program because of fundraising challenges.
"Those numbers continue at times to grow,” Barr said. “Everyone will acknowledge the lack of psychiatrists, and the lack of funding for psychiatric services, or a clear need, but at this point in time the State of Illinois has not been willing to step up and say, 'We need to provide more ongoing funding to meet this critical need.'"
CHS provides services for youth over age 12 with mental illness who are either uninsured or insured by Medicaid. But there is a loophole for some youth who don’t fit that package.
Schools Step Up
Kim Freymann, program manager of counseling services at CHS, said most youth referrals come from McLean County schools.
The county Board of Health provides a fixed grant each year for CHS to see students in need of help and not covered by Medicaid. But they have to be from Bloomington Junior High, Parkside Junior High, or the Olympia school district.
Freyman said the grants provide counseling services to any student referred directly by the school as part of a health department pilot program.
Teachers and administrators note a recent increase in need for social emotional services in schools.
Tim Moore, principal at Bloomington High School, said the school guidance office sends an email to staff when they meet with a student in mental health crisis. He gets at least one of those emails every day.
“Our school, our district, all schools across the country are seeing a huge increase in students that have social emotional needs, and I really think they're all grasping and trying to figure, 'OK, so how can we support them even more than what we're doing?'" Moore said.
BHS is launching an advisory period, a designated time to help students better connect with teachers and let teachers address student social emotional needs.
“I gave an example today of a student that is a very loud student. When she's there, you know she's there. We absolutely love this kid,” Moore said. “I saw her this morning and she was dead silent. So something's going on with her, and so having that advisory period, if she's in my advisory period I'll pick up right away that there's something going on with her and will allow me to be able to help her.”
That pilot program launches in January.
District 87 also uses counselors from CHS and Project Oz. Project Oz provides a mental health education and suicide prevention program at all schools in McLean County.
Executive Director Lisa Thompson said the program prepares students to recognize and respond to mental health challenges early by identifying warning signs, practicing coping skills, and asking for help.
Thompson said Project Oz also provides Youth Empowered Schools counselors at Bloomington, Normal Community, and Normal Community West high schools.
Unit 5 has those services too, but also works to equip teachers to help youths with mental health challenges.
Nancy Braun, Unit 5's special education administrator, said teachers in recent years have become more attuned to troubling behaviors that signal mental health issues.
When teachers recognize a kid in crisis, Braun said the school contacts a hotline to determine next steps.
PATH, or Providing Access To Help, is a 24/7 hotline. But they do not offer ongoing services. When a youth calls in looking for help, PATH refers them to CHS.
As GLT reported Thursday, local services are not quick to find youth psychiatrists.
Braun said that makes finding help for youth in crisis a struggle.
"I'm ready to do a GoFundMe to see who we can bring in,” Braun said. “Because we bring them in and then they leave because it's so overwhelming. Because there are so many kids."
She said the lack of psychiatrists in McLean County is only getting worse.
"Even when we have kids in crisis that have to be hospitalized, they either go to Peoria, Springfield, and surrounding counties because we don't have anything here," Braun said.
Braun said the need does not stop when a youth is released from care.
"A lot of times our kids who are then hospitalized get evaluated, get on a medication protocol, whatever, and then come back to our community and there's not a whole lot of follow through because there's nobody here to do some of those pieces," she said.
Without resources, schools struggle to make up for the dearth of psychiatric care.
Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said when comprehensive care isn’t an option, schools have to find a way to help.
"Quite frankly, if the schools don't try to step in and fill this void, our resources are very limited throughout our community,” he said.
Daniel said he knows there are groups in the community coming together to find solutions, but that it’s time to see some results.
“We're hiring interventionists to deal with emotional behavior, so social emotional learning. And we didn't have to do that 10 years ago,” Daniel said. “But, if public schools don't do it, then we will not serve the needs of our kids, which will then create a deficit to our community.”
Psychologists, though, can’t prescribe medication. Only psychiatrists can.
County Calls For Collaboration
McLean County’s Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, was assembled as a result of the 2015 Mental Health Action Plan.
Center for Human Services Executive Director Tom Barr serves on the council. He said addressing youth mental health takes a variety of services.
"I don't know of any community, particularly in downstate Illinois, that has all of these services in one location and are able to provide all of these services on an ongoing basis,” Barr said. “Many different communities will have bits and pieces of them, as does McLean County at this point in time, for example with the Crisis Team, but the goal is to try to bring providers together to coordinate care, and also to help ensure that the families have access to that care.”
But the goal isn’t just providing those services. Barr said they also have to address the issue of transportation.
He said that’s why school-based programs are so important. They eliminate the need for families to make transportation plans.
Barr said the BHCC wants to create more collaborative work between services in the county. He said that way, multiple agencies can utilize the same child psychiatrist.
But before there can be action, Barr said there needs to be movement on the state level regarding funds. He said there is no legislation on the table right now that would work to fix the problem.
"Whenever there is a change in state leadership, there is usually some changes in terms of priorities,” Barr said. “So, we'll have to wait and see, but we want to be very optimistic that additional funds may be available in the future."
With no answers as to when additional funds might be available, those in need of youth psychiatry services have no choice but to wait.
Illinois youths in need of immediate mental health care are encouraged to call the PATH hotline at 2-1-1.
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