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Illinois addresses children's
mental health    
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[JULY 15, 2004]  URBANA -- Barbara Shaw, chair of the Illinois Children's Mental Health Partnership, believes that one in 10 Illinois children has a diagnosable mental health problem. She also believes that only one in five children needing treatment in Illinois receives it.

"We are clearly facing a crisis," she said. But Shaw also says that change is in the air. Gov. Blagojevich's creation of the Children's Mental Health Partnership to assess needs and recommend action on this issue and passage of the Children's Mental Health Act of 2003 have mental health professionals feeling more optimistic than they have in years.

Shaw outlined the partnership's recommendations for interested academics and mental health professionals at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign last week in a session sponsored by the Chancellor's Cross-Campus Initiative for Promoting Family Resiliency, the School of Social Work and the Champaign County Mental Health Board.

An advocate of early intervention, Shaw stated, "We need to include early support for children's social and emotional well-being, not just treatment services."

At one meeting she attended, Shaw said she had played a 911 tape of a child pleading for help as her stepfather threatened her mother and siblings.

"Four policemen listened quietly in a corner, and at the end of the tape, one spoke up and said, 'That was me. I was nobody's problem. Nobody noticed. But I went to school every day with my stomach in knots, barely able to function.'"

Shaw stressed that success in school is directly related to how well children are doing socially and emotionally. "This is an essential underpinning for later success in life."

The 2003 legislation requires schools to develop social and emotional learning standards along with other educational standards and assess kids regularly to see that the standards are met. Shaw argued that early intervention is cost-effective, not just one more task for teachers to take on. 

"Research shows that when these problems are addressed, absenteeism decreases and grades go up," she said.


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"And catching problems in early childhood and at school age means we don't face bigger problems when kids become teenagers," she said.

"In our media-driven society, children are often maturing past themselves," she added. "That means that their social and emotional development isn't keeping up with all the knowledge that they're taking in. And that knowledge may not even be accurate."

Shaw wants intervention and treatment that engages families and caregivers. "We need to have family-driven plans. Many of the adults in our mental health system are parents, but we don't deal with that. We need to address their needs for their children's sakes as well as their own."

Other recommendations by the partnership include building a qualified and adequately trained work force, developing programs and research that reach across cultural barriers and into both urban and rural areas, and exploring various Medicare waiver options to increase funding in Illinois.

"As we worked together on these recommendations, we saw agencies spend hours together figuring out ways to pool money so services could be more effective and efficient," she said.

She added that the partnership has a long road ahead of it as it works to put these recommendations into action. The partnership hopes to join forces with many groups across the state that are also committed to addressing children's mental health needs.

But Shaw said it all goes back to the needs of the children. "Think back to that 911 call. What will it take to break the cycle in that family? What will break the cycle for the girl or for a boy in that family, so extreme stress and violence aren't part of the way they raise their families?"

[University of Illinois news release]

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