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Each May for the past 70 years, mental health organizations and other entities launch a national movement to raise awareness about mental health, reduce stigma around mental illness and treatment, and encourage people who are struggling to seek support.
Americans today are experiencing a mental health crisis. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, depression and anxiety rates have doubled for children, youth, and young adults. In 2019, 11% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder, and that number increased to more than 41% in 2021.
VNA grantee partners tell us that the populations they serve are challenged by higher rates of mental and behavioral health issues, with essential workers, families in low-income households, and Latino and Black individuals disproportionately impacted. In addition, as confirmed repeatedly by our grantees, there is inadequate and inequitable access to care, especially for people of color.
All these issues are compounded by a shortage of behavioral health providers. In fact, more than one-third of Americans live in “Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas” (geographic areas that have been designated by the Health Resources & Services Administration as having a shortage of mental health providers). In Illinois, nearly 38% of residents live in designated “Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.” Geographic proximity is only part of the access issue, and it has been reported that just 23% of Illinois residents who need behavioral health services are able to access care.
Oftentimes, mental health challenges are considered a stand-alone issue; however, there is abundant evidence that mental health status can and does impact physical health, including issues related to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the immune system. For example, multiple studies have found that psychologically based treatment leads to greater improvement in digestive symptoms when compared to only conventional medical treatment, and research shows depression can lead to an increase in aches and pains and even alter eyesight. Our grantee partners have also shared how mental health challenges impact individuals’ employment, relationships, and other aspects of their daily lives.
VNA Foundation has supported health services for the medically underserved since its founding, and gave its first standalone mental health grant in 2009. Since then, VNA has awarded approximately 135 mental health grants to 50 different agencies throughout the Chicagoland area. In response to the current crisis, VNA is on track to give in 2022 more mental health grants than any previous year.
The VNA team is honored to be a small part of the critical and timely work led by our grantee partners—including work to promote access to mental health services, improve mental health outcomes, and address the physical health symptoms correlated with, or directly impacted by, behavioral health. Below, we highlight some of their essential and lifesaving work to improve the mental health of those they serve.
The Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center is the only Chicago entity that brings child protection, law enforcement, and healing services together to provide comprehensive child abuse prevention and treatment programming. VNA supports the Center’s in-home therapy and community-based psychoeducational groups for children who have been sexually abused. Each child responds to trauma differently, but common challenges include nightmares, anxiety, dissociation, hypervigilance, and depression. With the help of specially trained therapists, and often alongside non-offending caregivers, children learn positive coping, emotion regulation, and relationship-building skills.
Based in Chicago’s western suburbs, 360 Youth Services focuses its holistic services on youth currently or formerly experiencing homelessness. VNA supports the behavioral health counseling and medication management that occurs in the agency’s transitional and emergency housing. Many of the young residents are recovering from trauma, family conflict, substance abuse, and/or the inadequacies of the foster care system. Rates of mental illness are significantly higher among homeless youth, and about 70% of the residents report mental health challenges. Through its programming, 360 Youth Services addresses mental health and substance use issues and helps young residents return to school or earn a GED, enroll in Medicaid and other support programs, and find employment.
With locations in Northfield and Waukegan, The Josselyn Center is a community mental health center addressing the needs of individuals and families. Clients representing more than 65 communities (including those in bordering states) go to The Josselyn Center for support with chronic conditions such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. The Center’s comprehensive services include psychiatric care; individual, couple, family, and group therapy; case management; and a Living Room, a comfortable and non-clinical alternative to the ER for those experiencing mental health crises. VNA supports the Center’s Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, a critical team member assisting clients with their healing journeys.
The current landscape of mental health—in terms of challenges as well as services to address those challenges—is disheartening. Nevertheless, the VNA team is hopeful due to the adaptability, expertise, and dedication of our grantee partners. We believe with additional resources, and policies that require more equitable services, agencies like those funded by VNA will be able to build capacity to address the crisis we are facing. We thank our partners for their commitment to improving mental health and are privileged to play some small role in their work.
Sources: BioMedical Central, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDPC), Harvard Health, Health Resources & Services Administration (hrsa.gov), Illinois Department of Human Services, The Institute of Medicine of Chicago, Kaiser Family Foundation, and National Health Interview Survey