Survey shows a surge in mental health issues in the Peoria area
Mental health problems are on the rise in the Tri-County area.
According to the 2022 Community Needs Health Assessment survey, the percentage of people describing their overall mental health status as “good” fell 73% in the past six years, while the percentage of people reporting “poor” mental health doubled in the past three years to 16%.
The Community Needs Health Assessment also shows 12% increases in the number of people experiencing depression, stress or anxiety compared with the previous survey in 2019.
Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson said one reason behind the survey results is greater self-awareness when it comes to one’s own mental health condition. She said the findings also can be seen as a residual of COVID-19.
“I always think that one of the best things that happened through the pandemic is we had conversations around our dinner table normalizing things such as mental health and health equity,” said Hendrickson. “We talked about checking on each other: Did you have a phone call with your friend, (or) a mental health break? Checking on your neighbors or loved ones, just to see how they're doing and how they're holding up.
“Especially if you had family members that were elderly, the depression of having to self-isolate away from them, not seeing their grandkids, things of that nature — we were talking about that on a routine basis. So, I think the data shows not only, one, living through a pandemic and the impact it has had on us as a community, but also just an increased understanding and willingness to acknowledge mental health as part of your overall health.”
Mary Sparks Thompson, the president of UnityPlace, the behavioral health and addiction services division of UnityPoint Health, said while there's not one specific reason for the increase in mental health problems, COVID-19 is definitely a contributing factor.
“I think right now there’s really not a clear understanding of why we're seeing this significant increase in behavioral health needs for the entire age spectrum from young children all the way through our senior citizens. If we think about the last several years, though, everyone knows that there's been a significant increase just in the stress of daily living,” said Sparks Thompson. “For example, we've had to change a lot of the ways we work, the way we interact with other people. COVID has led to social isolation for a lot of people.
“So all of those factors increase susceptibility to mental health symptoms, ranging from depression to anxiety. Additionally, when we think about the fact that we've lost over a million citizens, there's at least that many and more who are suffering from grief due to loss of their loved ones. Most everyone knows someone who's been sick with COVID, or had some kind of impact to their life through COVID. Either through job change, job loss, of course, our children have suffered with the switch to online learning. So, all of those combined, that's the reason I believe that we're seeing the increase that we are in mental health symptoms and disorders across the board.”
The Community Needs Health Assessment also shows age-adjusted suicide rates on the rise in Peoria and Tazewell counties, with the rates for all of the Tri-Counties above the state average. Another area of concern is hospitalization for mental health issues, with Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties each showing above-average rates.
Although the region's spike in mental health issues is alarming, Hendrickson said labeling it a crisis is not quite accurate.
“The word ‘crisis’ means that it's novel and it's happening overnight, and I don't think that's the case. I think it's a high- priority issue and has been for a while, and we're seeing it now manifest in different ways,” she said. “I think what makes it a crisis is that some of the ways you see it manifest are in severe outcomes, such as suicidality.
“So how do we take a hold of this problem? That's really the million-dollar question, partly because there is no single solution and no single agency or platform where it works, but it really (takes) a comprehensive approach. That's what the Partnership for a Healthy Community is working on: How do we take our entire community’s resources and work towards that. There is no singular response, but rather (it’s) looking at all the best practices and identifying where as a community we can fill those gaps and direct resources.”
Treatment for children
One specific area of need is mental health treatment for children. The assessment shows pediatric mental health hospitalization rates in Peoria and Tazewell counties are above the statewide rates and higher than most other counties in Illinois.
Sparks Thompson said that's one of the reasons UnityPoint is converting the former Heddington Oaks nursing home into a behavioral health center for children and adolescents, and launching the Young Minds Project.
“We are building on a tradition of over 70 years of being firmly committed to behavioral health services in this area, and so we are looking forward to expanding the resources for children and adolescents,” said Sparks Thompson. “We are concerned about the availability of resources for children. We are doing some programming in our local schools to reach children where they are, and looking at other creative ways to increase access to care, one of which, of course, is adding additional hospital beds at our Young Minds Project, as well as expanding and co-locating services across the continuum of care for behavioral health needs for children”
As a start, Sparks Thompson said the expansion plans for the Young Minds Project call for increasing the number of inpatient beds from 23 to 44.
“The other services we would like to add are a partial hospitalization program and an intensive outpatient program, which is a step between being in the hospital and seeing a therapist and medication management through psychiatrist once you're out of the hospital,” she said. “So that's a bridge between those two levels of care, which really helps to meet a need.
“We don't want to have children hospitalized unless they need it, but we want to be available for them in the event that they need it. So these types of outpatient programs will hopefully help reduce the number of children that become ill enough that they require hospitalization.”
Many people responding to the survey identified limited access to mental health treatment services as a barrier to receiving the care they need. Some believe they have to wait too long to get help, or they can't afford the out of pocket co-pays, and others just have difficulty finding counselors or don't know where they should look. Other obstacles include stigma, socio-economic status, unstable home environments, and not recognizing symptoms.
Hendrickson emphasized there are many levels to why accessing treatment can be a challenge.
“One is the number of providers that are even available, and the type of insurance they take,” she said. “Some providers don't take all insurances, and not everyone has an insurance that covers mental health or behavioral health fully. So you have access (limitations) just by default of payment plans.
“You also have access in terms of when you know that you need it, recognizing that immediate crisis versus down the road. How do you get into a care (program) or get into even a queue to have that referral to a care model that's appropriate? Sadly, when you want it, you want it now, and then two weeks (later) when it is available to you, at that point in time that crisis or that need kind of changed for and you don’t feel like you need to follow up with that appointment.”
Sparks Thompson said one of the biggest keys to getting a handle on the Peoria area's growing mental health problem is workforce development.
“We need more nurses, we need more peer recovery specialists, we need more therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists. We're working on all of those disciplines within the behavioral health setting so that we can improve our access,” said Sparks Thompson. “One of the interesting things is — and this is anecdotal; I don't have any hard data on this — what we're finding is that the psychiatry residency programs are becoming more competitive and there's more applicants. So I do have some hope that there's a growing interest in this field, and we're excited to hopefully reap the benefit of that increased interest.”
Hendrickson said it's important to realize that mental health issues occur on a wide spectrum with varying degrees of severity. And people need to understand that mental health treatment is a long-term process.
“Oftentimes, people think of mental health providers and behavioral health specialists as a ‘be all, everything,’ that they will solve everything, and that's not the case,” she said. “Think of your own medical provider. An individual that's diabetic, they'll work with their medical provider to make sure that they can do symptom-monitoring and control, but it's a lifelong process. That physician does not solve them from being diabetic and does not cure them overnight.
“Similarly, we have to understand that mental health providers are similar in that sense that they are going to help provide you quality of life, be able to meet your symptomology (and) meet your control so that you have a thriving a thriving life versus going through these issues of crisis.”
Hendrickson said the key to getting the region's mental health problem under control is to coordinate services and identify the gaps. Sparks Thompson agreed, noting that acknowledging the problem exists is a good first step.
“I think the best thing we can do is to talk about what services are needed, what services are available, continue to do that community education to let people know when to receive help, and I think acknowledging that and normalizing the need for services ranging from therapy to hospitalization,” she said. “The more we talk about it, the more we educate others about it, the more we listen to one another and support one another, the more likely people will be able to reach out for help instead of isolate and suffer in silence.”