Springfield will be primary home for state’s new behavioral health education center


Gov. JB Pritzker unveiled a behavioral health workforce initiative in Springfield Wednesday intended to improve mental health and developmental disability treatment across Illinois.

The Behavioral Health Workforce Education Center partners the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine with several other groups including the Illinois Department of Human Services, University of Illinois Chicago, Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Community College Board, and Illinois Student Assistance Commission to train mental health professionals and provide better access to services statewide.

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The facility’s main hub will be at SIU Medicine in Springfield, with UIC serving as the secondary hub. SIU’s chair of psychiatry, Kari Wolf, will serve as the center’s chief executive officer. IDHS will provide $5 million each year to help get the project started in all parts of the state.

Officials from each of the groups appeared at the Memorial Health Learning Center alongside Pritzker, IDHS Secretary Grace Hou, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, State Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, D-Chicago and Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder to speak about the impact the program will have on mental health services statewide.

Pritzker said that the new program is one contributing factor in his plan to make Illinois the best state in the nation for mental health services, ensuring that care is provided quickly and effectively in urban and rural areas statewide.

“From care portals and universal screenings to improved coordination of service delivery and increased statewide capacity, we are laying out a plan to build the best behavioral health system in the nation,” Pritzker said. “Built in Illinois, we will lead the nation when we are done with this, but in order to make all of that happen, we need a quality, robust workforce to meet the demands of the time.”

The announcement of the BHWEC comes the same day as an announcement to repurpose the Choate Mental Health and Development Center in southern Illinois with the assistance of SIU Medicine, providing people with developmental disabilities the opportunity to seek community-based settings or to be transferred to other state facilities to continue their treatment.

The treatment of Choate patients has come under scrutiny in recent years, with a report in September by Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises and ProPublica fleshing out allegations of abuse by employees to young patients at the facility. The governor said that the repurposing, which will include new safety enhancements and the appointment of a chief resident safety officer at each state-operated developmental center in Illinois, will help to provide better care and treatment for those with disabilities.

“Individuals with mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities deserve respect, dignity, and the highest quality of care to assist them in living healthy, fulfilling lives,” Pritzker said. “This transformation initiative, spearheaded by IDHS, will standardize and improve conditions across the system and prioritize community-based solutions to ensure vulnerable Illinoisans receive care in the best possible setting.”

The workforce initiative may help to provide a better base of care for facilities like Choate, with Wolf stating that through working together with a wide range of different stakeholders – including the groups partnering for the center – they can solve the many issues related to behavioral health workers in the state.

“I’m honored to lead this initiative and look forward to working with our partners here today,” Wolf said. “I’m also ready to work closely with educators, learners, advocates and regional partners around the state to address the behavioral health workforce needs in this state.”

Wolf said the project can be transformative, not just for the people of Springfield and Illinois, but for the nation as well in terms of addressing shortages in the workforce for mental health and behavioral health facilities.

“That’s something that’s not unique to Illinois; it’s something that exists across the country,” Wolf said. “When I speak with my colleagues across the country, they are jealous of the work that we’re doing, that we have a dedicated emphasis and are building this center specifically to address the healthcare workforce in this community.”

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Having the initiative based primarily in Springfield is an achievement not just for SIU Medicine but for the city, Langfelder said.

“Having this workforce development initiative in Springfield really puts us on the forefront of expanding our medical arena to provide those types of services, which are critically needed not only around the state, but around the country,” Langfelder said.

As much of the country continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and recovers from the mental health issues that came about as a result of it, those involved with the project said the initiative could have a major impact on behavioral health services statewide. The state’s top executive officer said that without a strong, qualified workforce, nothing else matters.

“This is the workforce component and it’s hugely important,” Pritzker said. “Nothing else happens without building up our workforce in this area. Through recruitment and training, data collection on behavioral health needs, increased diversity and expanded capacity of health care providers, we are attacking the workforce shortage head-on and changing the status quo.”

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March 10, 2023 at 10:22PM

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