Making Connections To Help Kids With Mental Health Issues


An Illinois group says it has found a way to improve the handling of mental health issues in children.

The Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation aimed to increase ties among schools, mental health and primary care providers and sometimes early childhood and juvenile justice programs.To that end, it issued $12 million in grants to four communities in 2010.

Early identification of mental health issues can lead to earlier treatment. And the screenings by schools helps that, said Heather Alderman, president of the foundation. A report released at a conference on Thursday showed that the result of the initiative was an increase in children being screened from 6 percent to almost half, which in turn boosted access to mental health services. In some locations, there was also an improvement in cases of children’s depression, anxiety and other issues.

The report noted that about 22 percent of 13- to 16-years of age “age  experience  impairment  related  to  mental  illness. Equally  troubling  is  the  early  age  at  which  mental  disorders  develop.  The  median  age  of  onset  for  anxiety  disorders  is 6 years old.”

The four communities involved were Adams and Livingston counties, a group made up of Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties and the city of Springfield.

Five other communities, including Chicago, will get another $12 million in grants to create their own efforts.

Sharon Bearden, a school social worker who coordinated the project in Adams County, said of mental health, “We’re talking about it more. It’s not that it hasn’t always been there. But, I think what’s happening is there’s becoming more of an impact on schooling and on work. So, if through identifying (mental health issues) and learning some coping strategies, providing the support that’s needed, then our students are going to be able to cope and function well and learn and grow.”

Mental health issues can emerge as behavioral issues or academic problems, she said.

“If you’re going to school and you have serious anxiety or there’s a lot of life stressors or trauma, you’ve had a history of trauma or you still live in in a situation or have an environment that’s still traumatic, your mind is not able to focus on what the teachers teaching you,” Bearden said

“There’s definitely an impact if you’re preoccupied or you’re worried, or you have all of these other things going on that are keeping you from thinking and learning. That’s why this connection with school (works) .We need to be able to help meet the social-emotional needs of mental health needs of kids. If we don’t do that, they’re not going to have the capacity to learn as well.”

Alderman said getting the conversation going is important.

 “One of the great things about this work is that I think that it has really helped to normalizeconversations about mental health and has helped to decrease the stigma associated with it. And that’s part of the report that we’ve gotten back from communities — that having a mental health screen in their registration packet is now just a matter of practice, and that it’s not problematic for parents and for communities,” Alderman said. “I think the more that we can do to normalize those conversations so that we can continue to think about children’s health and, and adult health for that matter, holistically, our minds and our bodies all working together. I think that that’s good for the health of the children of Illinois.”

Alderman said she can see the approach going statewide, but it needs to be individualized for each community.

“I can see the approach being useful across communities across the states. But it’s not it’s not a cookie cutter approach, it’s the elements of the of the approach, that would be replicable.”

A statute encouraging all schools to do mental health screening became law in 2017. Rules are still being established.

NPR Illinois 91.9

December 2, 2018