Increasing demand for mental health services is a challenge for service providers | Chicago News

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted mental health issues.

But with more people wanting to acknowledge their struggles, providing mental health services has become a huge challenge.

Dr. Robert Shulman, director of clinical services and acting chair in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Rush University School of Medicine, said he has seen “huge demand” for services since the start of the pandemic.

“I think our emergency department is busier than ever with people who have behavioral health issues,” Schulman said.

The provision of mental health services has become too A major issue in the Chicago mayoral campaign. A number of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s rivals have criticized her decision not to reopen mental health clinics that were closed by her predecessor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

As a candidate for mayor in 2019, Lightfoot promised to reopen clinics but now favors an approach that uses a network of nonprofits to help provide care.

Schulman said he’s observed an increasing number of children showing up in emergency rooms who exhibit self-harming and substance abuse behaviors.

“When we talk to community service providers, particularly those who work with children and adolescents in the community — therapists, psychologists, social workers — they’ve all said over the past two years that their practices are fully staffed,” Schulman said. “They can’t keep up with the phone calls. They can’t keep up with the demand.”

Even before the pandemic, Schulman noted, referrals for teens were on the rise due to the impact of social media and the pressures it places on children and teens in particular.

“We’ve seen an increase in suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviors,” Schulman said.

While the data is not yet in, Shulman believes we will see a continued epidemiological impact on childhood development.

“My personal feeling is that when these kids reach their teens, we’re going to see a lot of anxiety and panic disorders,” Schulman said. “We’re likely to see more things like obsessive-compulsive types, picking disorders, germ phobias, etc. Right now, we’re seeing delays in maturation and learning.”

At NAMI Chicago (NAMI stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness), CEO Alexa James said, calls to the organization’s Chicago helpline are up more than 200% during the pandemic.

“In the midst of COVID we were the 311th for the city,” said James.

She stressed the need for equitable access and “for people to be able to consume mental health services in a way that feels good to them.”

NAMI Chicago’s mission is to “engage, educate, empower, and equip” people with the tools they need to live through recovery—but what that looks like in practice depends on the individual’s needs.

James said some people may need therapy, some for crisis intervention, and others simply need to be talked to.

“We have a very developed platform, we definitely have an intake structure, but our entry is a narrative form, so we really let people lead the conversation,” said James.

One thing she’s grateful for is that the pandemic seems to have advanced the conversation around mental health issues.

“I am grateful and I hope so, thank God!” James said. “Because we are going through the biggest mental health crisis we hope we will ever see. The conversation has changed because more people are recognizing the symptoms of mental health issues and we know that the main way to reduce and remove barriers and stigma is to get out and talk about it.”

Part of developing a conversation may simply change the way we talk about it.

Schulman said he prefers not to talk about “mental health” but instead “difficulties” and “wellness”.

“As a society, we’ve lost sight of how to maintain wellness,” said Shulman.

Regarding the impact of the pandemic, Schulman said that rather than talking about “concern,” he prefers to frame the issue as “trauma.”

“One can talk about trauma without creating mental health stigma,” Schulman said. “We’re talking about society, and so I think if we take a community approach to what happened to us and put it in context, it (the pandemic) was traumatic for everyone, and people experience trauma and respond to it in different ways.”

According to Schulman, in order to meet the growing demand for services, there is a need to think differently about how that care is delivered.

“We actually have to innovate a little bit and change our models of care so that we can reach a larger population,” said James. “A place for these things can be almost anything….we can actually provide care in churches and libraries and barbershops and beauty salons if they are organized in a certain way. So, we can go into the community and we can go into any community…and we’re really creating ways Treat differently than we do today.”

To reach the NAMI Chicago Helpline: 833-NAMI-CHI (626-4244)

To reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988

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