Youth mental health concerns
With a recent round of grants from the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services and the country still dealing with effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health remains a key concern for organizations like Human Support Services – particularly when it comes to taking care of young people.
The state grants came early in February, with 15 organizations throughout the state receiving a total of nearly $13 million to be put toward training school personnel, emergency responders, law enforcement and others in early intervention to recognize the signs of mental health challenges.
HSS, Monroe County’s largest provider of mental and behavioral health services, received just under $250,000 specifically for youth mental health.
In February, HSS President and Chief Executive Officer Anne Riley noted a sharp increase in the number of young people experiencing mental health crises over the last two years.
Given her many years of experience in mental health services, Riley more recently indicated the problem existed well before the pandemic.
“As a social worker who has worked in school-based settings in the past, I know that our youth have been struggling with their mental health long before the last decade,” Riley said.
In terms of numbers, Riley was able to offer some perspective in terms of what HSS has seen in the area.
She said 80 percent of the nonprofit’s intake calls were related to youth services in late 2022.
In the first quarter of fiscal year 2023, Riley said HSS saw 46 percent more youth in its mental health counseling program than ever before.
She also noted that nationwide, suicide is now the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-14.
Beyond living through a global pandemic over the last few years, Riley pointed to a number of possible reasons children and teenagers struggle with mental health.
She pointed to the heavy use of cell phones, social media and a “constant barrage of stimulation” that comes with such ready access to the internet.
A major consequence of this internet consumption can be low self-esteem as well as depression and anxiety, Riley said, as young people are presented with a reality online that shows them “unrealistic standards that no real person can live up to.”
“We cannot speak to a definitive cause in individual cases of young people we are seeing with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses,” Riley said. “However, we do know from what we’ve seen and from multiple national studies that the after-effects of the pandemic and the pressures put on our youth by social media are most likely playing a role for many kids. Sometimes a lack of real life social engagement is also a factor.”
Monroe-Randolph County Regional Superintendent of Schools Kelton Davis offered his thoughts on what could be impacting youth mental health.
Davis, like Riley, emphasized social media and an abundance of free time taken up with screen time.
He added that along with heavy social media use, there seems to be a separation of people from each other as far as in-person relationships.
Columbia Superintendent of Schools Chris Grode spoke about his own kids and how young students are simply trying to figure things out as they grow up.
He further pointed to the highly politicized state of the country and how young people see and feel the negativity from such conflict. Grode specifically noted the position students were in as school districts were torn between following pandemic rules and guidelines while also meeting the needs of their communities.
Waterloo Superintendent of Schools Brian Charron agreed with the impact that heavy screen time, lack of social interaction and political polarization seem to have on young people’s mental health.
Riley spoke about HSS’ current situation and what they’ve been doing to address the youth mental health crisis.
A major part of the agency’s efforts has been a mental health awareness campaign to try to address the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Riley offered two flyers that are part of this campaign. One of these offers several quotes from young people ages 8-16.
These youth describe, among other things, the physical pain that can come with anxiety, added stress that comes from feeling the need to hide feelings from parents and the urge to stay awake in order to avoid nightmares prompted by anxiety.
One 13-year-old made mention of “the Sunday scaries,” which Riley described as the “irrational fears and internal darkness that overcome a person on Sundays, when the impending doom of Monday – return to school and all that goes with it – is right around the corner.”
“What we hope to do when we put phrasing like this on a flyer is to let people know that if they’re having these feelings, it’s OK, and they are not alone,” Riley said. “More importantly, they don’t have to feel this way. Help is available.”
Beyond general awareness, HSS has also had a presence in area school districts for some time, with counselors on-site at various schools in Monroe County to supplement district social workers and guidance counselors.
Riley said these counselors, along with assisting staff at the school, can help provide a bridge for long-term therapy if necessary.
“I think that HSS and the school social workers and guidance counselors make an extremely effective team, working together to serve the many varied needs of students throughout the school year,” Riley said. “There is one thing we all agree on and that is kids need all the support that we can give them.”
Davis also spoke highly about the relationship HSS – and Randolph County agency ComWell Behavioral Health Services – has with local schools.
“We’re all paddling in the same direction,” Davis said. “We have a clear understanding of our needs, and she and HSS have been instrumental in both pulling us together but also keeping us moving forward. Their work with our youth… Our two counties are very fortunate to have very proactive agencies.”
Charron, too, commended the role an agency like HSS plays in schools.
Local school districts, he said, are often tasked with solving societal issues simply beyond their purview such as youth mental health.
Charron said it’s a “blessing” to have a local mental health agency with a presence in the district in order to address the needs of students with experienced professionals.
Looking to the future, Riley expressed a major interest in further building the relationship between HSS and local schools.
A big part of this that she discussed is HSS’ Mental Health Awareness and Training initiative, a program to be developed with the recently-awarded grant.
While MHAT is a commmunity-wide project, one of its objectives is to prevent youth mental health crises by reaching youth directly where they already are.
Riley explained the goal is to have half of all school employees in Monroe County trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid by 2026 while also having faculty and administration at the county’s three high schools trained in Signs of Suicide.
Youth Mental Health First Aid training is also planned to be made available to several hundred community stakeholders, according to Riley.
Mental health first aid, Riley said, is just like regular first aid, care meant to take care of an immediate crisis situation while helping the concerned individual find more permanent, professional care.
“It’s much like learning other life-saving techniques. You recognize the signs, address the problem and get the person the right help,” Riley said. “People like to help. It’s much less intimidating when you know how.”
HSS also plans to further its campaign to combat the stigma of mental illness while improving mental health awareness in the community, something Riley and Davis spoke about.
“My hope in the future, and what I think Anne is laying out, is that taking care of our mental health is just like taking care of our physical health,” Davis said. “You don’t have to be embarrassed or ashamed. And it becomes a community standard that it’s OK not to be OK, and we can get help.”
While much is planned going forward, Riley offered some advice for local residents to help take care of the mental health of their children, students and peers.
She advised simply asking questions about young people’s lives and feelings. Really listening when a child or teenager opens up is also vital.
Paying attention to youth is important as well. Noticing if someone is suddenly withdrawn – while also knowing that chronic overachievers can also secretly be battling anxiety and other problems – can help address issues early on.
“Whoever your child is, you know them best, so trust your instincts,” Riley said. “If you feel something isn’t right, ask a professional for help.”
Riley further advised taking a mental health first aid class as “the more we know collectively, the more we understand together, and the less scary it is to talk about.”
For more information on HSS, call 618-939-4444 or visit hss1.org.