Column: All hands on deck required to combat mental health crisis – Chicago Tribune

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The recent email that Eric Ward and his spouse sent out “mostly to friends and family” started with an apology of sorts.

Noting how many people are likely getting hit up for money this time of year from nonprofits struggling to keep up because of limited fundraising opportunities, Ward quickly offered assurance that Family Counseling Service, where he serves as executive director, is financially solid.

But then he and wife Kelly asked for help anyway.

While this Aurora-area nonprofit counseling agency might be “doing OK financially” during these tough times, “our community on the other hand is not doing so well,” wrote Ward.

Family Counseling Service Executive Director Eric Ward said that people are seeking mental health care more than ever.

Family Counseling Service Executive Director Eric Ward said that people are seeking mental health care more than ever.
(Family Counseling Service / HANDOUT)

People are seeking out mental health care more than ever before, he continued. In particular “the number of parents contacting us for help for their children and teens has skyrocketed,” to the point Family Counseling Service for the first time had to start a waiting list that continues to grow.

At one point earlier this year, there were more than 380 people on that list, Ward told me, a figure that fluctuates but tends to run higher this time of year with kids back in school and emotional problems growing more prominent.

And the only way to fix this unprecedented onslaught, he insisted, is to hire more therapists, social workers, case managers and psychiatric medication providers.

Unfortunately, the start-up costs of hiring, training and orientation can get expensive. Which is why the Wards decided to create an online fundraiser to help reach the goal of adding five staff members.

About 60% of new clients come to FCS with anxiety issues, not surprising considering how the pandemic raised fears while isolating people from the support systems we all should be able to rely on, especially during crisis. And those rough times have only continued with inflation and other harsh economic factors that are affecting employment, housing, transportation and food.

“We don’t know what next year will look like, but one thing is for certain, societal issues won’t improve,” Ward warned. And unless the economy improves, “there is a looming disaster waiting to happen.”

No wonder then that Michael Isaacson has declared behavioral health “my top priority” as the new executive director of Kane County Health Department.

Kane County Health Department Executive Director Michael Isaacson.

Kane County Health Department Executive Director Michael Isaacson.
(Kane County Health Department / HANDOUT)

“More people are struggling, younger and younger children are experiencing problems, and we are seeing more acute, serious issues,” he told me, noting the most recent comprehensive community health assessment, which is taken every three years with providers that include schools, hospitals and police departments, show mental health as the top health concern.

And the number one need among providers, he added, is the staffing necessary to deal with those increasingly long waiting lists.

It’s not that there is a shortage of behavioral health specialists, both experts agree. But “if we want to keep people from leaving for the more lucrative private practices, we have to pay competitive benefits,” said Ward. “And that is a priority for us because staff turnover is hard on patients who lose trust when we have to start over.”

Other than this recent fundraising effort, Family Counseling Service has taken steps to address the problem, including the creation of its Community Health Academy that provides in-house training and “is going well,” said Ward.

Also, $3 million in county grant money was awarded to a partnership of what Isaacson describes as “the safety net providers for mental health and substance abuse.” Those include Family Counseling Service, Mutual Ground, Association for Individual Development, TriCity Family Services, Family Service Association of Elgin and Ecker Center for Behavioral Health.

Working at nonprofits that often involve acute cases, home visits and off-hours is a challenge, Isaacson insisted. And in order to serve all residents, including those from minority and other vulnerable populations, “we need to have the resources to staff these organizations.”

All these issues have contributed to the upcoming launch of “Thrive by 2025,” a Kane County comprehensive plan that focuses on a “common vision” and “coordinated effort” between schools, faith and medical communities, law enforcement, employers and providers, because “this problem does not just fall on any one of us,” Isaacson insisted.

It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort, he insists, that will be needed to tackle a behavioral health crisis impacting so many, including the more affluent white community experiencing rising rates of suicide and drug overdoses.

“We know a lot of people are suffering,” Isaacson said. “No matter where you live, this can impact your family.”

dcrosby@tribpub.com

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December 9, 2022 at 06:53PM

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