A controversial plan to screen all Illinois schoolchildren for mental health problems could become a reality June 30, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) reviews a proposal from the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership (ICMHP).
According to the ICMHP, a group of mental health advisors in the state, one of every 10 children in Illinois suffers from a mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, “severe enough to cause some level of impairment.” But only 20 percent of the children in need of mental health services ever receive them, the group says.
To address that problem, last summer the ICMHP held public hearings in cities from Chicago to downstate Marion to gather feedback on a preliminary plan to build a “comprehensive children’s mental health system” in Illinois. The plan was initiated by a two-year-old law, the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003.
By word of mouth and through the Internet, news of the hearings spread quickly as parents learned more about what was proposed in the ICMHP’s preliminary strategic plan to ensure mental health services are delivered to pregnant women statewide, and to their children from birth through age 18.
While the plan’s proposals sounded harmless on the surface, comments during the statewide hearings created a stir, and concerned parents began to voice their disapproval.
The state, they said, is no longer assuming children are mentally healthy–with this program, it will presume all children need mental health services unless tests prove otherwise. That paradigm shift concerns parents who don’t believe psychiatric evaluation is an appropriate part of a local public school’s mission.
“We’re moving toward social training over academic training with this program,” said Larry Trainor, a Mt. Prospect resident and parent of four children. “Since psychiatric involvement in education [has increased], SAT scores have gone down for the past few decades. Evaluating mental conditions is not based on scientific evidence–it’s subjective.”
Privacy advocates’ and religious groups’ concerns grew as they questioned how the term “mental health” would be defined under the ICMHP plan. Would children’s religious beliefs be assessed negatively if they conflict with what the state deems to be “acceptable” answers on tests? If so, would those children be considered in need of mental health care or delayed in their academic progress?
“Therein lies the problem,” said Karen Hayes, associate director of Concerned Women for America-Illinois. “Those setting this new system up don’t like to admit this, but in order for them to determine what ‘mental health’ is, they need to define what ‘mental illness’ is. That’s where they get into dangerous territory.”
Proponents say the program is not defining “mental health.” It is simply making sure assistance is available to those who need services most.
“Our biggest concern is that all children and expectant mothers have access to good mental health care,” ICMHP Director Barbara Shaw said. “We have no intention of setting up a mandatory system of screening. We just want the 20 percent of children who need mental health care to get what they need.”
Mental health programs and services should be available and accessible to all Illinois children, whether they are toddlers struggling to master basic developmental tasks or adolescents experiencing feelings of depression, and to adults adjusting to the demands of parenthood, the ICMHP wrote in its Preliminary Strategic Plan, submitted to Blagojevich last September.
The Illinois Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003, which focuses on early intervention and prevention of mental health problems, calls for a plan to link the state Office of Mental Health with the Department of Public Aid, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), and every school district statewide. Under the law, a final plan to do so must be on the governor’s desk by June 30.
Sponsored by State Sen. Maggie Crotty (D-Oak Forest) and Reps. Julie Hamos (D-Chicago), Patti Bellock (R-Westmont), and Beth Coulson (R-Glenview), the act breezed through both chambers with only one opposing vote.
But Bellock, one of the original bill’s cosponsors, now says the law went much further than she intended.
Since the plan reaches out to “all children” and “all expectant mothers,” Bellock wants to refocus and limit the plan’s potential intrusion by sponsoring new legislation that will require families to opt into the school mental health screening programs, rather than having to opt out.
“The reason I sponsored the legislation in 2003 was that I am very concerned about children who are in the juvenile justice system or are already in the foster care system,” Bellock said. “We can’t help but wonder how these problems might have been avoided if they were detected early enough.”
Admitting she was unable to attend most of the task force meetings, Bellock said she had no idea the final proposal would be expanded so far.
That far-reaching system is already being put into place: By the end of 2004, the ISBE had incorporated social and emotional developmental measures into the Illinois Learning Standards.
While the state’s current fiscal crisis may prevent the plan from being fully implemented as soon as it’s presented to Blagojevich at the end of June, some aspects will be initiated this year. Most funding for the plan will follow children deemed in need of assistance through federal health care programs such as Medicaid and Kidcare.
Fran Eaton ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist in Chicago who covers Illinois politics.