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Peoria area health organizations identify community needs

Monica speaks
Tim Shelley
Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson speaks at a COVID-19 media briefing on Jan. 13, 2022.

The 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment identifies three major public health issues in the Tri-County area: active living, mental health and obesity.

The assessment is done every three years and conducted by a partnership among Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford county health departments, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center and UnityPoint Health Central Illinois.

Illinois health departments conducted similar assessments every few years since the '90s, while IRS rules require nonprofit hospitals to do one as well. Monica Hendrickson, public health administrator at the Peoria City/County Health Department, said the two groups decided to do the assessments collectively in 2016.

“We work towards not only assessing our community,” said Hendrickson. “But then having a long-term plan for how we address those key health priorities that we see in our community.”

Hendrickson said, for her as a public health professional, a 12% increase since 2019 in people reporting feelings of depression stands out.

“A lot of the data focuses, especially this cycle, on what we saw as the impacts that COVID had on anxiety, depression, and everyone's kind of self awareness of health,” she said.

Hendrickson said there are a lot of potential ways to increase mental health care, like making sure screening is adequate and access to providers is plentiful, but these might not mean a return to previous rates of people reporting feelings of depression.

“We could also recognize the fact that the pandemic gave us awareness and terminology for the feelings that we might have had as a community as a whole, right?” she said.

“I talk about the fact, usually when people ask me about, you know, any silver lining to the pandemic, and it is that we talk about health equity and mental health around kitchen tables. It’s become part of our normal conversation to understand a lot more.”

There also are active projects increasing the capacity of mental health care in the Tri-County area. Hendrickson points to the upcoming UnityPoint Young Minds Institute as an example.

The other two major needs in the study — obesity and active lifestyles — go hand-in-hand for Hendrickson. The report found two-thirds of Tri-County residents are overweight or obese. Hendrickson said treatment of obesity often falls into clinical settings but earlier prevention, encouraging active, healthy lifestyles, has many avenues.

The study also found many people weren’t exercising regularly because they didn’t have the time or didn’t have a place to go for exercise. These factors were worse for those with low income or low education backgrounds.

“You're really looking at interventions that help address that. Kind of making physical activity, slightly a more social activity, more community based intervention,” said Hendrickson. “Then on the food side, very similar, kind of the priority areas in terms of people that were impacted.”

She said placing healthy food options in accessible areas and further incorporating vegetables into early childhood education are possible interventions to encourage healthy eating.

In an effort to begin addressing all identified needs, meetings started last week between the health departments, hospitals and community organizations to begin planning improvements. Hendrickson said the progress of these projects will all be documented here.

She hopes making information like the assessment publicly available will encourage people to think about their communities in a public health context.

“It's one thing to do this work and then put it nicely in a binder. on a shelf, and no one does anything, but that's not the intent of the partnership,” said Hendrickson. “The partnerships’ ideal is to really be held accountable, to make sure that we are collaborating and coordinating towards finding solutions for our community.”

The next community health needs assessment report is due in 2025. You can find the full report, as well as similar projects for surrounding areas here.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.