Illinois launches new youth mental health program

SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) — The Pritzker administration announced Tuesday that Illinois is launching a new $2.5 million federally funded program to help pediatricians and other health care providers meet children’s mental health needs. The program will strengthen mental health services in schools and emergency rooms, focusing on increasing the volume of counseling services provided throughout the state.

The administration said the Illinois Department of Public Health, Department of Health and Family Services, Department of Human Services, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Illinois Affiliate of the American Academy of Pediatrics will work together to provide more education and training opportunities for mental health doctors and other health professionals. They hope the program can also improve the network of mental health resources and referrals available to providers and patients. There is also the possibility of direct provider-patient telehealth programs for children.

“The last few years have been challenging for all of us, and that’s especially true for our children,” said Governor JB Pritzker. “With these new specialized resources, Illinois will better identify children who suffer from mental health issues and ensure they receive treatment and therapies that work, while addressing disparities in access to mental health treatment .”

Expanding access to pediatric psychiatric care in Illinois will be funded by the US Department of Health and the Health Resources and Services Administration through America’s Rescue Plan and the Safer Communities Act. Both proposals were passed by Congress this year.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said children deserve the resources that will help them develop into happy, healthy adults. She noted that access to mental health services is critical for those struggling.

“An African greeting asks, ‘Are the children well?’ We know that when our children are well, our communities are strong and our future is bright,” Stratton said. “Illinois is committed to ensuring children are well by initiating collaborative interagency programs to strengthen health services, schools and overall supports for children and families across our state.”

The administration said this program will support pediatricians, family medicine physicians, nurse practitioners and assistants. The program will also support school health providers and emergency room workers, who are often on the front lines when children need care.

“As a pediatrician, I have seen the unprecedented behavioral health challenges our children in Illinois have faced over the past few years,” said IDPH Director Dr. Sameer Vohra. “This trend was evident even before the advent of COVID-19 and has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has disrupted learning and relationships and increased isolation for countless children. This new program will allow providers to have more resources to address children’s needs by improving mental health education and training opportunities.”

UIC’s DocAssist program is a free psychiatric consultation service for primary care providers who need help screening, diagnosing and treating mental health and substance use problems in children, adolescents and perinatal women. The DocAssist program is administered by the UIC College of Pharmacy through an interagency agreement with the university’s Office of Medicaid Innovation and HFS. DocAssist is staffed by UIC Department of Psychiatry child psychiatrists, social workers and administrative assistants who work to help providers diagnose and treat mental health issues in children.

DocAssist Medical Director Dr. Diane Misch said the state’s new project is an important step in addressing Illinois’ youth mental health crisis.

“Illinois’ DocAssist program was created to address mental health treatment disparities for vulnerable populations in Illinois, and this partnership helps improve our ability to bridge the gap between primary and specialty mental health care,” Misch said. “We estimate that with the launch of the partnership, pediatric mental health consultations are projected to increase by more than 40%, and we expect to see improved outcomes for at-risk youth regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, geographic location, and socioeconomic status.”

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