How Peoria navigates the challenges of pediatric mental health treatment, and an insider's view on where the system needs to go
CONTENT WARNING: Some readers and listeners may find parts of this story about suicide and youth mental health struggles distressing or difficult.
Peoria and Tazewell counties see more mental health related youth hospitalizations than many parts of the state.
The most recent Community Health Needs Assessment shows in Peoria County, 313 children per 10,000 are hospitalized in an ER for pediatric mental health challenges. In Tazewell County, it's 276 people per 10,000. Those numbers are far above the statewide average of 192 children per 10,000 hospitalized in an emergency department for mental health reasons, and higher than most Illinois counties in general.
The Peoria area serves as a regional hub for medical care in Central Illinois, including behavioral health treatment. UnityPlace is currently seeking to convert the former Heddington Oaks nursing home in West Peoria into additional youth behavioral health treatment space.
Kaysie is a Mental Health Associate at the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit at UnityPoint Health Methodist in Peoria. Kaysie has asked that her last name be left out of the story to protect her privacy for safety reasons.
The Child and Adolescent Unit at Methodist serves patients between the ages of 4 and 18. Patients typically stay between five to seven days.
Kaysie said she decided to work with kids because of her own challenges with depression and anxiety.
“I think it means a lot to me to talk to these kids and tell them ‘I’ve felt all of these things before and look at me now. I’m helping you. It really resonates with them. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had kids say to me, ‘you get angry too?’ Yeah, I get angry too. These kids, they don’t learn that,” Kaysie said.
Kaysie said it's a challenging environment to work in sometimes, but the staff at Methodist are supportive of one another when working with kids facing mental health challenges.
“You can’t control their actions. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. They’re kids. They’re impulsive. It hurts, and it’s definitely sometimes hard not to take it personally, but the more I work on the floor, the easier it is,” Kaysie said.
Kaysie said the same patients will repeatedly come back to the hospital for assistance.
“They might have a trauma that maybe impacted them that we didn’t go through that we didn’t process with them and learn how to cope with. Or, maybe they didn’t tell us that a medication wasn’t working for them that we put them on and that ended up being increased and then causing more suicidal thoughts. The fact that it’s short term and the fact that not every patient sees it how it actually should be used, that can definitely contribute to them coming back,” Kaysie said.
Finding therapists and proper medications is a long and difficult process for many.
“There are so many parents that have called that are like, ‘coming here was the quickest way I could get my kid immediate help’ because it’s almost impossible to get into a counselor now.”Kaysie, Mental Health Associate at the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit at UnityPoint Health Methodist in Peoria
“There are so many parents that have called that are like, ‘coming here was the quickest way I could get my kid immediate help’ because it’s almost impossible to get into a counselor now,” Kaysie said.
One patient, who requested his and his parents' names be withheld for privacy reasons, said he has been through it all when it comes to finding help.
He is an 18-year-old who struggles with post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts. He has survived three attempts to take his own life within the last year and a half.
“The way that I describe anxiety is like that feeling when you jump into a pool off of a diving board, and then you’re swimming up and you don’t think you’re going to make it to the top and you just get that rush of, ‘I’m not going to make it to the top.’ Then you do, and everything’s okay, but anxiety is you just kind of live with that feeling of swimming up, and the top of the pool just seems like it’s getting further and further away,” the patient said.
The patient described depression as not trusting your own emotions and feeling like nobody in the world can understand what you’re feeling.
Both of the patient’s parents said the day he told them he was considering killing himself was the day their lives changed forever.
The patient’s mom said it is important for people with a family member considering suicide to find support.
“The way that I describe anxiety is like that feeling when you jump into a pool off of a diving board, and then you’re swimming up and you don’t think you’re going to make it to the top and you just get that rush of, ‘I’m not going to make it to the top.’ Then you do, and everything’s okay, but anxiety is you just kind of live with that feeling of swimming up, and the top of the pool just seems like it’s getting further and further away."The patient, an anonymous suicide survivor
“Worry is constant. Fear. The highs and lows. You know you think things are going really well, and the next day their very very bad. You have to have your own support system. You have to be able to support each other and have friends and people that you can talk to,” the mom said.
The patient’s dad said while he and his wife both have hope for their son’s future, the entire experience has scarred them.
“I have some form of PTSD from it because you’re constantly worried. You’re worried that you’ll find your child dead. They’re gone an extra hour, and you wonder ‘have they jumped off a bridge? Have they done something else to themselves?’ To live in fear constantly is really no way to live,” the dad said.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States in 2020.
Suicide was the second leading cause of death in youth ages 10-14 and the third leading cause of death in people ages 15-24 in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Peoria County and Tazewell County age-adjusted suicide rates are trending upwards, and both counties report rates above the state average. Woodford County is trending downward, but is still above the state average.
The patient said he knows it is not just him that feels this way. He feels there’s a “loneliness epidemic.”
“I think that not everybody in the world feels lonely, but I think that it’s a huge reason why people with mental health issues have mental health issues is because they feel like there’s nobody they can to talk to, there’s nobody they can love, nobody to love them. Even if that’s not true, that’s what your mind kind of tells 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 many people don’t have a support system because of mental health stigmas.
“Kids today are more mental health aware. I was talking to somebody even just today, and she was like, ‘my parents told me that therapy is for weak people. That mental health problems are not real. You don’t need to go to therapy; you’re fine.’ That mindset has been spread. I think it’s dwindling though. I think we are getting more mental health conscious,” the patient said.
This patient said he has been hospitalized five times. He said the mental health system is “the worst side of the healthcare system.”
“All of the fumbling of people up in administrative offices gets passed down to the people with actual mental health issues who are not in the position to take on any more stress. In many ways, the system is slow, it’s dated, and antiquated. It absolutely does not serve the person; it serves the path of least resistance,” the patient said.
His parents echoed that feeling of being neglected.
“At one period, our A.P.N. stopped working where we saw her. He had an appointment scheduled, he had just gotten out of the hospital the week before, and all of the sudden she wasn’t there. We didn’t have anyone to follow through with medications,” the mom said.
The parents both said finding a new advanced practice nurse or psychiatrist was difficult because at the time, their son was bordering on the edge of childhood and adulthood.
“The pediatric places would not take him because he was about two months out of being 18. The adult places wouldn’t take him because he was not 18. No one would call us back,” the mom said.
The mom said they even tried to enroll their son into long-term hospitalization, or residential treatment, at a reputable out of state facility. This was also difficult.
“We went through all the screening, we went through insurance, we were told multiple different things. They told us one thing about our insurance, our insurance told us another thing about coverage. We didn’t care how much it was. We were going to pay for it. However, again, a lot of people can’t manage that, and we were told if we had to pay out of pocket for a three month stay, the cost at that facility was $97,000,” the mom said.
There were times where the patient and his parents had to wait in an emergency room for up to nine hours before he could be admitted to another hospital’s behavioral health unit. Their insurance only covered treatment at specific facilities.
Kaysie from the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit at Methodist said it is important for hospital higher-ups to not only look for ways to improve mental health services for patients but staff hospitals adequately to avoid burnout.
Kaysie said this also starts with patients realizing no matter what their support systems look like, what they feel is valid.
“You know that you want to live. There is a part of you that holds onto hope always, and that is the frequency you’ve got to tune into 24/7. You’ve got to hold onto hope. You’ve got to keep that piece of you that never dies. You can’t let your abusers win. You can’t let yourself destroy yourself. It’s okay to get help."The patient; an anonymous suicide survivor
“I tell the kids this: wear your mental illness proud. You need to show people that this is so much more normal than what we’ve always believed it to be because I think the more we talk about it and the more it’s not as marginalized, the more we accept it and find more resources and more resources come about,” Kaysie said.
Kaysie said she encourages people struggling with their mental health to realize it’s a journey that requires resiliency.
“You’re going to have setbacks. You’re going to have times where you’re thriving and you’re doing the best, you’re doing everything perfectly. It’s okay if you fall short and if you don’t fully acknowledge your needs sometimes,” Kaysie said.
The patient said society as a whole needs to recognize the seriousness of mental health challenges.
“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,” the patient said.
He wants to let people know taking their own life is not the way to deal with their mental health struggles.
“You know that you want to live. There is a part of you that holds onto hope always, and that is the frequency you’ve got to tune into 24/7. You’ve got to hold onto hope. You’ve got to keep that piece of you that never dies. You can’t let your abusers win. You can’t let yourself destroy yourself. It’s okay to get help,” the patient said.
The patient's father said for parents, it’s important to advocate for their child and any family member coping with mental health challenges.
“No one pays the price for the suffering of your loved one more than them and more than you. So, don’t be afraid to hurt someone’s feelings and change providers if necessary. Don’t be afraid to challenge them. Do your best to stay educated,” the dad said.
The patient's father said when dealing with mental health struggles, the best advice he can give is to love your child, love yourself and love one another.
Help is available for people suffering from a mental health crisis 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK. A trained crisis counselor can also be reached through the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will be changing to the three digit number 988 beginning Saturday, but the current number (1-800-273-8255) will always remain available after 988 is launched.