Chicago Sun-Times

Too many kids in mental health crisis aren’t getting the help they need


There is no shortage of data on the severity of the mental health crisis that now affects American children.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from February revealed that nearly 60% of teen girls felt sad or hopeless in 2021, and more than half of LGBQ+ students had recently struggled with poor mental health.

Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Associatio­n this month found that family economic hardships during the height of the pandemic created the most stress, sadness and COVID-19-related worry in children.

Illinois hasn’t been spared from these harsh realities, and children here are sure to suffer as the country grapples with an impending shortage of psychiatri­sts, psychologi­sts and social workers. Low-income children who don’t have private insurance are even more vulnerable. The situation is even worse for young people in Illinois Department of Children and Family Services custody or in foster care, Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert told us.

Our state has a 20-year-old program aimed at helping young people who are on Medicaid or don’t have insurance at all. But cracks in that system still make it difficult for thousands of children experienci­ng a mental health crisis — sometimes suicidal — to get the help they need, an investigat­ion by WBEZ’s Sarah Karp and Kristen Schorsch found.

The current mental health crisis, long-standing staff shortages and lack of hospital beds for children who need intensive care have left the program “a total mess,” as Golbert told WBEZ.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state officials know they must do better. For the sake of Illinois’ most vulnerable children, their efforts to mend the frayed safety net have got to be successful.

The shortcomin­gs of the Screening, Assessment and Support Services program, or SASS, must be addressed — or it will completely stall out when it comes to helping kids whose families have nowhere else to turn.

Right now, as one care provider affiliated with SASS told Karp and Schorsch, it’s like a Cadillac driving nowhere.

An ‘ugly’ cycle

Too often, children wait far too long to be assessed under SASS, a job outsourced to private contractor­s. Complaints that children in crisis are waiting hours just for assessment­s are up 50% in the past year, WBEZ found. Whether or not children are getting connected to the mental health support they need is unclear: The state did not provide data to WBEZ on screening outcomes for some 40% of more than 220,000 cases, from 2018 through 2022, that should have had a quick response under SASS.

In addition, the wait for therapy appointmen­ts or hospital beds can take days or weeks, if it happens at all. Many hospitals don’t take Medicaid patients.

Many young patients can end up being restrained physically or with medication, and when they don’t get the help they need, the “ugly” cycle repeats itself, Golbert said.

Late last year, the state launched Pathways to Success, a program that funds community organizati­ons to provide more intensive care coordinati­on and supportive services for children. The plan is to spend $300 million a year on the program when it is fully implemente­d.

But we have to ask: Why, when some of those services are what SASS providers are already supposed to be providing?

The devil is in the details, and the money and political will must exist to change the status quo, as Golbert told us. He also points out that the state should admit it erred several years ago when it switched from a Medicaid program that operated on a traditiona­l fee-for-service basis to a “managed care” system that limits which care providers foster parents can access.

Bottom line: Children who don’t get the mental health help they need will have a tougher transition into a productive adulthood.

It benefits them, and Illinois as a whole, to do the utmost in making that transition easier.

 ?? MANUEL MARTINEZ/WBEZ ?? At least once a week, a child in mental health crisis shows up at St. Bernard Hospital’s ER. The South Side hospital has no psychiatri­c beds for kids.
MANUEL MARTINEZ/WBEZ At least once a week, a child in mental health crisis shows up at St. Bernard Hospital’s ER. The South Side hospital has no psychiatri­c beds for kids.

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