One of my friends in middle school was known for her uncanny ability to brighten up any space she walked into. But when we hit high school, she had become more withdrawn and dejected, and her self-esteem plummeted. She was clearly struggling, but at the time, I didn’t know what the signs of depression were and was at a loss for how to support her. She and I had no idea who to talk to for support. I still think about how we struggled to find her care and support.
This story is not uncommon – many of us have watched friends suffer or even lost loved ones at a young age to their battles with mental health.
Now, as a medical student at the University of Chicago, I encountered Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy’s and the City Club of Chicago’s recent talk on youth mental health. He spoke on how many issues of intersecting identities, self-worth, anxiety, and depression have been impacting Illinois youth.
The COVID-19 pandemic has largely exacerbated youth mental health issues. In fact, Illinois experienced a 59 percent surge in ER visits for suicidal thoughts for children aged 5 to 18 between 2016 and 2021. Schools report more students accessing mental health care, yet only around half of schools have the resources to support them across the country.
Schools are at capacity. The children need help.
It’s time we urge our legislators to push for more support for pediatric mental health. I wanted to highlight recent Illinois policies here to show how we have positioned ourselves as leaders in pediatric mental health policies.
Illinois is one of only 12 states that allow children to take five mental health days off from school. School counselors reach out to parents when the second mental health day is used. This policy acknowledges that students’ mental health, like their physical health, is indispensable to their academic achievement/education.
This November, Illinois launched a 2.5 million dollar effort to increase mental health services for children. This funding will support school-based health providers and emergency department providers who often are on the frontlines when children are in need. This program forms part of a broader investment in Illinois to support the integration of psychiatry in primary care settings. With a focus on screening and early treatment, we can ensure children are plugged into care faster.
Co-sponsors for these policies included senators with backgrounds in K-12 education, social work, and youth program involvement. In Dr. Murthy’s talk, Illinois Senator Mike Simmons mentioned that youth council sessions often include voicing and sharing their issues openly with legislators. Such a youth-centered approach is critical to feasible and sustainable initiatives, as was the case for SB4028, which mandated a mental health curriculum that includes education for K-12 students on how to find mental health providers.
Detractors might argue that these policies will increase mental health visits, overburdening thinly stretched schools. Moreover, some would also argue: why institute more mandates and curriculum changes for our struggling schools?
However, schools and emergency rooms are the front lines where we will first see mental health issues. Therefore, it makes sense to invest in resources to support these programs.
Illinois has now launched these policies to increase mental health literacy, screening, access, and fortify existing resources for children.
These policies are game changers.
While Illinois has a positive momentum for progressive pediatric mental health policies, more work needs to be done. In terms of funding and allocating resources for mental health counselors in schools, how can we address the disparities in pediatric mental health? How do we ensure that schools that need this funding have the right infrastructure to address these issues, especially in rural Illinois? Chicago already has a strong infrastructure for developing trauma-informed care centers with community organizations across 77 neighborhoods. These networks increase access to care – including mental health – regardless of insurance and immigration status. Can such models be scaled up statewide throughout Illinois?
There is still more work needed to understand the impact of these policies longitudinally, and I urge researchers and public health officials to begin tracking the outcomes of such policies.
Pediatric mental health impacts our country and can have consequences further down the line in terms of employment and education. Illinois proudly champions abortion rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy/equity in the Midwest. We can serve as a beacon of hope for pediatric mental health. Shirking this responsibility would be harmful.
Nitin Vidyasagar is a medical student.