Too many children in a mental health crisis are not getting the help they need

There is no shortage of data on the severity of the mental health crisis now afflicting American children.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from February revealed that nearly 60% of teenage girls feel sad or hopeless in 2021, and more than half of LGBTQ+ students are currently struggling with poor mental health.

Other Study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this month found that economic hardship for families during the peak of the pandemic created the most COVID-19-related stress, grief, and worry in children.

Illinois has not yet been spared from this harsh reality, and the children here will surely suffer as the state grapples with an impending disaster. lack psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. Low-income children who do not have private insurance are even more vulnerable. The situation is even worse for young people in Illinois Department of Children and Family Services custody or in foster care, Cook County Public Trustee Charles Golbert told us.

Our state has a 20 year old program aimed at helping young people who are on Medicaid or have no insurance at all. But loopholes in the system still make it difficult for thousands of children experiencing mental health crises – sometimes suicidal – to get the help they need, according to an investigation by WBEZ's Sarah Karp and Kristen Schorsch.

The current mental health crisis, long-standing staff shortages and a lack of hospital beds for children in need of intensive care have left the program “a complete mess”, as Golbert told WBEZ.

Governor JB Pritzker and state officials knew they had to do better. For the sake of Illinois' most vulnerable children, their efforts to mend the torn safety net must succeed.

Deficiencies in the Screening, Assessment, and Support Services, or SASS, program must be addressed — or the program will come to a screeching halt when it comes to helping children whose families have nowhere else to turn.

Right now, as one SASS-affiliated care provider told Karp and Schorsch, it's like a Cadillac you can't drive.

The “ugly” cycle.

Too often, children wait too long to be assessed under SASS, work outsourced to private contractors. Complaints that children in crisis wait hours just for an assessment are up 50% in the last year, WBEZ found. Whether or not children are connected to the mental health support they need is unclear: The state did not provide data to the WBEZ on screening outcomes for about 40% of the more than 220,000 cases, from 2018 to 2022, which should have received a rapid response. under SASS.

In addition, waiting for therapy appointments or hospital beds can take days or weeks, if at all. Many hospitals do not accept Medicaid patients.

Many young patients end up being restrained physically or with drugs, and when they don't get the help they need, the “ugly” cycle repeats itself, says Golbert.

Late last year, the state launched Pathways to Success, a program that funds community organizations to provide more intensive care coordination and support services for children. The plan is to spend $300 million per year on the program once fully implemented.

But one has to ask: Why, when some of these services are supposed to be provided by a SASS provider?

The devil is in the details, and money and political will have to be there to change the status quo, as Golbert has told us. He also pointed out that the state had to admit its mistakes years ago when it switched from a Medicaid program that operated on a traditional fee-for-service basis to a “managed care” system that limited the access of care providers that foster parents could have access to.

Bottom line: Children who don't get the mental health help they need will have a more difficult transition to productive adulthood.

It benefits them, and Illinois as a whole, to do their best to make that transition easier.

We welcome letters to the editor and op-eds. Check us out guidelines for both.

Send a letter to