How Peoria is dealing with the challenges of child psychiatric treatment, and an inside look at where the system needs to go

Updated 2 years ago on October 17, 2022

CONTENT WARNING: Some readers and listeners may find some parts of this story about suicide and youth mental health issues distasteful or difficult.

Peoria and Tazewell counties have more mental health-related hospitalizations for adolescents than many other parts of the state.

In Peoria County, 313 children per 10,000 are admitted to emergency rooms for mental health problems in children, according to the latest Health Needs Assessment. In Tazewell County, the rate is 276 per 10,000. These numbers are well above the state average of 192 children per 10,000 hospitalized in the emergency room for mental health problems, and higher than most Illinois counties as a whole.

The Peoria area serves as a regional hub for health care services in Central Illinois, including behavioral health treatment. UnityPlace is currently seeking to convert the former Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria into additional behavioral health treatment space for youth.

Casey works as a mental health assistant in the child and adolescent behavioral health unit at UnityPoint Health Methodist Center in Peoria. Casey has asked that her last name not be mentioned in this article in order to maintain her confidentiality for security purposes.

The Methodist Center's Children and Adolescents Unit serves patients between the ages of 4 and 18. Patients usually stay in the unit for five to seven days.

According to Casey, she decided to work with children because of her own problems with depression and anxiety.

"I think it means a lot to me to talk to these kids and tell them, 'I felt all these things before and look at me now. I'm helping you." It really resonates with them. I can't tell you how many times kids have said to me, "Are you angry too? Yeah, I'm mad, too. These kids don't learn that," Casey says.

Casey said working in such an environment is sometimes challenging, but the Methodist Center staff supports each other as they work with children facing mental health challenges.

"You can't control their actions. They are going to do what they are going to do. They are children. They're impulsive. It hurts, and of course it's hard not to take it personally sometimes, but the more I work on the floor, the easier it gets," Casey said.

According to Kaysi, the same patients will return to the hospital repeatedly for care.

"They may have a trauma that affected them that we didn't go through and work through with them and learn how to deal with it. Or maybe they didn't tell us that the medication we put them on wasn't working for them, and they ended up increasing the dose, which led to more suicidal thoughts. The fact that the treatment is short-term and the fact that not all patients perceive it the way it should be used can definitely contribute to them coming back," Casey said.

Finding a therapist and the right medication is a long and difficult process for many.

"There are a lot of parents who call and say, 'Going here was the quickest way to get immediate help for my child,' because it's almost impossible to get to a psychologist now."

Casey, mental health specialist in the child and adolescent behavioral health unit at UnityPoint Health Methodist Center in Peoria

"So many parents call and say, 'Coming here was the fastest way to get immediate help for my child,' because it's almost impossible to get to a psychologist now," Casey says.

One patient, who asked not to be identified and his parents' names for privacy reasons, said he went through everything when it came to seeking help.

He is an 18-year-old who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and suicidal ideation. He has survived three suicide attempts in the past year and a half.

"The way I describe anxiety is like that feeling when you're jumping into the pool off the diving board and then you swim up, and you feel like you're not going to make it to the top, and you feel a rush of, 'I'm not going to make it to the top.' Then you get to the top and you're fine, but the anxiety is that you're just living with that feeling of swimming up, and the top of the pool seems to get farther and farther away," the patient said.

The patient described depression as not trusting your own emotions and feeling like no one in the world can understand how you feel.

According to both of the patient's parents, the day he told them he was considering suicide, their lives changed forever.

The patient's mother said it's important for people who have a family member considering suicide to find support.

"The way I describe anxiety is similar to that feeling when you're jumping into the pool off the diving board and then you swim up and you don't think you're going to make it to the top, and you get a rush of emotion, 'I'm not going to make it to the top.' Then you reach the top and you're fine, but the anxiety is that you're just living with that feeling of swimming up, and it seems like the top of the pool is getting farther and farther away."

Patient who survived suicide anonymously

"Anxiety all the time. Fear. The ups and downs. There are times when you think everything is going really well, and then the next day it's really, really bad. You have to have your own support system. You have to be able to support each other, have friends and people to talk to," says Mom.

The patient's father said that although he and his wife were hopeful for their son's future, the whole experience scarred them.

"I have some form of post-traumatic stress disorder because you worry all the time. You're afraid you're going to find your child dead. They're gone an extra hour, and you think, "Did they jump off a bridge? Haven't they done something else to themselves? Living in fear all the time is really no way to live," the father said.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States in 2020.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds in 2020 and the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.

Age-adjusted suicide rates in Peoria and Tazewell counties are trending upward, and both counties have a higher rate than the state average. Woodford County is trending downward, but the rate is still above the state average.

The patient said that he knows he is not the only one who feels this way. He believes there is an "epidemic of loneliness.

"I don't think everybody in the world feels alone, but I think that's a huge reason why people with mental health problems have mental health problems, because they feel like they have no one to talk to, no one to love, no one to love them. Even though it's not, that's what your mind is kind of telling you," the patient said.

The patient said he was able to find a good therapist after about six months because he had a good support system, but he knows that many people don't have a support system because of mental health stigma.

"Kids today know more about mental health. I was talking to one girl even today, and she said: "My parents told me that therapy was for weak people. That mental health issues don't exist. You don't need to go to therapy, there's nothing wrong with you." That kind of thinking was prevalent. I think it's diminishing. I think we are becoming more conscious of mental health issues," says the patient.

This patient said he had been hospitalized five times. He said the mental health system was "the worst side of the health care system.

"All this fiddling by people in administrative offices is shifting to people with real mental health problems who are not in a position to take on even more stress. In many ways this system is slow, outdated and out-of-date. It absolutely does not serve the individual; it serves the path of least resistance," said the patient.

His parents shared this sense of neglect.

"At some point our A.P.N. stopped working where we saw her. He had an appointment, had just gotten out of the hospital the week before, and suddenly she wasn't there. We didn't have anyone to keep track of his medications," the mother says.

The parents said finding a new nurse or psychiatrist was difficult because at the time their son was on the edge of childhood and adulthood.

"Children's institutions wouldn't take him because he wasn't 18 for two more months. The adult institutions wouldn't take him because he wasn't 18 years old. No one called us back," the mother says.

According to the mother, they even tried to enroll their son in long-term hospitalization, or inpatient treatment, at a reputable out-of-state facility. That wasn't easy either.

"We went through all the checks, we went through the insurance company, they told us several different things. They told us one thing about our insurance, our insurance told us another about coverage. We didn't care how much it was going to cost. We were going to pay for it. But, again, a lot of people can't handle it, and we were told that if we paid out of pocket for a three-month stay, it would cost $97,000 to treat at this facility," said the mother.

There were times when a patient and their parents had to wait in the emergency room for up to nine hours before they could be admitted to the behavioral health unit of another hospital. Their insurance only covered treatment at certain facilities.

Kaysi of the Methodist Center's Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit said it's important for hospital leaders not only to look for ways to improve mental health services for patients, but also to staff hospitals appropriately to avoid burnout.

According to Casey, it also starts with patients realizing that no matter what their support systems look like, what they feel is valid.

"You know you want to live. There's a part of you that always holds on to hope, and that's the frequency you have to tune into 24/7. You have to hold on to hope. You must keep that part of yourself that will never die. You cannot let your abusers win. You can't let yourself be destroyed. It's okay to get help."

Patient; an anonymous suicide survivor

"What I say to kids is this: wear your mental illness with pride. You have to show people that it's much more normal than what we've always believed, because I think the more we talk about it and the more it's not so marginalized, the more we accept it and find more resources, and more resources show up," Casey said.

According to Casey, she encourages people struggling with their mental health to understand that this is a journey that requires resilience.

"You will have setbacks. You're going to have periods where you thrive, do your best, do everything perfectly. It's okay if you fail and if sometimes you don't fully acknowledge your needs," Casey said.

The patient said that society as a whole should recognize the seriousness of mental health problems.

"If you look at the numbers, suicide is one of the leading causes of death, period. A mental health crisis is a physical health crisis," said the patient.

He wants to get the message across that taking your own life is not the way to deal with mental health problems.
"You know you want to live. There's a part of you that always holds hope, and that's the frequency that you have to tune into 24/7. You have to keep hope. You must keep that part of yourself that will never die. You cannot let your abusers win. You can't let yourself be destroyed. It's okay to get help," the patient said.

The patient's father said it is important for parents to advocate for their child and any family member facing mental health issues.

"No one pays more for your loved one's suffering than they do, and no one pays more than you do. So don't be afraid to hurt someone's feelings and change providers if necessary. Don't be afraid to challenge their opinion. Do what you can to stay educated," Father said.

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