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Wednesday, October 4

Joint Committee Seeks to Slow Rising Tide of Mental Illness Among School Kids

Republished with permission from The Daily Line

On Monday, October 2, 2017, the NASW-Illinois Chapter was present at a joint committee hearing between the Mental Health and Education Committees to discuss disparities of mental health services in public education. We would like to exstend a special thank you to Susan Hickey who testified for the chapter on the challenges and ratios school social workers have to manage.

Joint Committee Seeks to Slow Rising Tide of Mental Illness Among School Kids
by Rae Hodge – .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

In a joint committee hearing lasting more than five hours, social workers and pediatric psychiatrists educated state lawmakers in Chicago on the growing tide of student mental health problems across the state.

No vote was taken at the subject matter hearing by the House committees on Mental Health and Elementary & Secondary Education. Mental Health Committee Chair Rep. Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park), however, said similar hearings would continue in the coming months as the committee works with The Kennedy Forum on mental health parity issues. 

A central concern for witnesses from schools statewide is the alarming increase in the number of students hospitalized for mental health concerns, particularly among schools’ youngest students. 

[ISBE’s 2017 presentation on student mental health

Matt Epperly, assistant director for student services at Oswego School District 308, told the committees an in-house analysis of 18,000 students showed a marked increase in the number of students hospitalized for mental health treatment in the last few years. 

The district had “150 students hospitalized over the 2015-2016 school year. And the only way to track that was home-board referral,” Epperly said.

For the 2016-2017 school year, Epperly measured 160. For the current 2017-2018 school year, that number is already at 55. 

“For K-5 (the) highest number was around 12 students a year. We’ve already reached that this year. In previous years the majority of hospitalizations occurred in high school and some in junior high, but now we’re seeing that impact at all grade levels,” Epperly said. “While bringing schools into the conversation, I think we have to get all stakeholders into the room.”

The state’s shortage of psychiatrists and social workers, whose caseloads are not legally capped, exacerbates the problems of increased illness rates. Prevention tools used by schools such as mental health screening, said the witnesses, are essential in identifying students in need of treatment but further add to the workload of social workers, many of which are who are already juggling up to 70 cases at a time. 

A panel of social workers from rural and urban school districts elicited silence from the room when many revealed they were the only social worker servicing a school district with more than 1,000 students. 

[ISBE’s 2016 School Mental Health Presentation

Maria Wywialowski is a social worker at Hampshire High School with 28 years of experience in the field. Looking up from her microphone at the assembled lawmakers, she spoke matter-of-factly: “The wave of the future is that we are going to require more and more mental health support in the schools.” 

Social workers are also pressed into dangerous service for which they are not equipped when students with severe mental health problems are placed back into schools after treatment. 

Katie Smiley is a Larkin High School social worker is Elgin School District 46 where, despite the wide range of economic classes in the area, nearly 75% of her students are in poverty.14 students at Smiley’s school are hospitalized for mental health treatment plans, while another 57 students are currently hospitalized for homicidal and suicidal ideation. 

One of her students had “an average hospitalization time of four times per school year since 5th grade. Now he’s a freshman in high school, standing right in front of me, screaming in my face about how he’s going to cut (himself) because of me. I can’t follow him into the bathroom because it’s a boy. He’s incredibly suicidal, homicidal, seeing and hearing things, writing satanic images on his arms. But, in fact, I am there to deal with this general education student who basically lives in the hospital part time,” said Smiley.

“It’s trending. It’s becoming heavier and heavier each day,” she said. “We need more support. We need help.”

[Children’s mental health services funding and results over 3-year period

One crucial way lawmakers could help, the witnesses testified, was to fix the state’s use of IEPs, or Individualized Assessment Plans. An IEP is a mental health and learning disability assessment tool used in schools. 

“It’s also a legal piece of paper that makes sure that the kids are getting the need met within their schools,” said Conroy. The representative noted that IEDs qualify students for special education support plans and can open up district funding for these students’ needs. IEDs are often hard-won by social workers on behalf of students with mental illnesses. 

Rep. Feigenholtz and I had a long conversation about IEPs. It appears that some kids with mental health issues get them, some don’t. Some are losing amazing fights trying to get them and don’t get them,” she said. 

Another social worker from Elgin School District 46, the state’s second largest district after Chicago Public Schools, said the difficulty in obtaining IEPs for students increases as student mental illnesses remain undiagnosed until they reach upper grades, at which point schools are not authorized to diagnose students. Other times, illnesses develop in students who experience severe trauma or abuse.

[The most recent report on Medicaid funding for mental health

“Within the last two years I have had five children hospitalized, inpatient, for mental illness and these are all students who do not have an IEP. the struggle that I see as a social worker for over 18 years is that special education is really geared toward identifying discrepancy in learning disabilities,” she said. “In the school environment the priority is academic functioning. Many of these students are average in academic achievement. However, the mental illness is not looked at for the (learning) disability. It’s an invisible disability.”

She said sometimes it feels like “We’re just putting bandages on the situation when you’ve got kindergarteners first graders hospitalized for severe depression.” 

Rep. Steve Andersson (R-Geneva), facing representatives from schools within his district relayed his desire to move the issue forward, not only out of professional concern but personal. 

“This is not an urban issue. This is not a poverty issue. We have everything from U-46 that has the Village of Wayne which is about as wealthy as you can get here, to Batavia which is a very affluent community, to Hampshire which is a rural community. You’ve got it all. And I’m hearing the same story everywhere, and live the same story quite frankly,” he said. 

“I know a lot of parents who don’t have a clue about mental illness because it’s an invisible disability. We don’t talk about it,” Anderson added. 

Committee members mentioned a series of possible options in tackling the rising rate of mental illness in schoolchildren, some likely to strike a nerve among administrators. 

“One of the unique ideas that we’ve had is to consider looking into the regional offices of education and replacing them with social workers,” said Conroy, to the room full of heads nodding in agreement. “Instead of a six-figure superintendent, which is a layer I don’t believe we need. Perhaps we could put a psychiatrist in that position.” 

Posted on 10/04/17 at 10:00 AM


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