Nowhere to turn: Mental health treatment options for stateline youth extremely difficult to find

Published: Sep. 28, 2023 at 10:26 PM CDT
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ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) - Rockford parent Laura Nation describes the low points in the fight to get her 16-year-old daughter, Ari, inpatient mental health treatment as a constant uphill battle.

“Honestly, there’s been times where i’ve wanted to give up, because everywhere I turn everywhere I’ve fought, there was nothing,” Nation explained. “A lot of parents are at this end. Like we’ve fought the system, we’ve butted heads.”

Nation is talking about the system that provides residential or hospital care to kids and adolescents with urgent mental health needs, like severe depression, suicidal and homicidal ideations. These are services Ari has needed multiple times over the last three years.

“Before everything, she was very outgoing, but her mental health took a turn and it’s been a battle,” Nation said of her daughter.

Ari has dealt with severe anxiety, depression, self harming and dissociative disorders, to name a few. Her mental illness came to a head when, during a dissociative episode, she burned the family house down.

Inpatient and high acuity mental health care options for children and adolescents are severely lacking across the country, including here in Illinois. The state’s Department of Public Health data showed in 2020, 8920 kids ages 5-17 visited the emergency room for mental health reasons. In 2022, that number climbed to 11,500.

Dr. Oday Alsarraf is a child psychiatrist at UW Health. Its Swedish American hospital is the only inpatient ward in the area for young people with severe mental health issues. The unit’s 16 beds must serve the entire region.

Alsarraf explained, “The demand that’s needed in child and adolescent mental health is higher than any other medical field. And it’s been that way, according to some sources, for the last 20 to 30 years.”

2023 data from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed all counties in the stateline have a severe shortage of child psychiatrists. They are the ones who can diagnose and prescribe medication for mental health disorders. Winnebago County has 10 child psychiatrists per 100,000 children. DeKalb County has four. All others in our area have zero. Another report released by the Governor’s office revealed 40% of children who had major depressive episodes in the state last year were unable to get care.

“Anyone who’s going to be able to deal with mental health problems in kids and adolescents, we need more of,” emphasized Alsarraf.

For Laura and Ari, this shortage means they’ve gotten what they describe as the runaround trying to find care.

“We tried every avenue of finding inpatient mental health. Chicago was full,” said Nation. “Everywhere around us was full.”

Licensed social worker Laura Mullikin works with many of these young people and their families throughout their mental health journeys.

“It’s hard to know what to recommend when the options are kind of limited in our area,” she said.

She explains inpatient treatment is a last resort, but when it comes to that, she sees families’ desperation for help firsthand.

“Children, adolescents are having to go elsewhere, and that’s really traumatizing for kids to be taken out of the area, far away from their family,” Mullikin added.

Nation and Ari say, when treatment hasn’t been available, the alternative is much worse. Ari was put in a juvenile detention center three times. Her mom attributes her visits to untreated, or mistreated mental health issues. There, without hospital care, Ari’s self harming escalated.

“It was heart-wrenching,” Nation said of watching her daughter suffer. “She was angry and I couldn’t do anything, and everything I tried felt like it failed.”

In February of this year, the Governor’s office announced plans to overhaul the state’s services for young people. The Children’s Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative worked to idenitfy and report weaknesses in the system and come up with a coordinated approach to fix them. This includes a new online portal to search for treatment options and more frequent screenings in schools. 22.8 million dollars were earmarked in this year’s state budget to implement new programs.

Meanwhile, neither Mullikin or Alsarraf have given up hope.

“It does concern me a lot, I have several clients who haven’t had the best experiences with the local programs. Certainly, I’m hopeful that will improve,” said Mullikin.

“It’s pretty severe,” added Alsarraf. “I wouldn’t say it’s urgent to the point where we should panic. But it’s severe enough where we need to be training more mental health professionals.”

As Ari progresses through the youth court’s mental health system, she and her mom attribute animal therapy and consistent medication to her improvement. Despite this, Laura knows her daughter’s mental health journey is far from over. She told me she doesn’t believe her daughter ever really got the mental health treatment she needed.