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Mental health workers describe dire circumstances for teens

'There’s not a lot of sober environments for students'

GENEVA – In a meeting with more than a dozen mental health professionals May 3, U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Naperville, clearly was taken aback when she was told of the mental health crisis combined with increased drug use among local high school students.

“The amount of drugs that I am seeing students use is just astronomical,” said Kimberly Boatner, a contract clinical social worker in Batavia District 101 who also has a private practice in Geneva. “It’s not like when I was in high school. Most of our kids are using on any given day.”

Boatner clarified that more than half of high school students she sees have used drugs, but not necessarily every day.

Boatner said the combination of students’ mental health issues with opioid use results in students who are high at school, or in possession of drugs.

Because they are given an option to reduce their suspension if they agree to have treatment, the district has been able to reduce the amount of student suspensions over the past two years, Boatner said.

Underwood met with mental health providers at TriCity Family Services in Geneva in a 90-minute roundtable discussion of challenges and barriers for people to access mental health services in the 14th Congressional District.

‘It’s almost an ER setting’

Sandy Borgstrom, student support specialist at St. Charles District 303, said she has seen an increase of self-harm in the middle school population requiring hospitalization over the past two to three years.

At the high school level, Borgstrom said students are pressured with AP and honors classes that many may not be ready for.

Another factor is the number of classes students are taking, skipping lunch because it’s not required, and not having any down time during the school day, Borgstrom said.

Kelly Hesselbaum, the Geneva District 304 staff social worker and prevention coordinator, said four social workers see more than 150 students a year with ongoing services, some with acute mental health crises.

“It’s almost an ER setting of trying to deal with what’s in front of us,” Hesselbaum said.

No support for recovery

Boatner and Borgstrom described a situation in which a student in need of mental health and addiction services has no real support system once released from the hospital.

“The barrier for students that I’m seeing is an environment that is not supportive to recovery,” Boatner said. “The parents are addicted as well or can’t participate because they’re working. They would need (the Family Medical Leave Act) if the child is going to intensive outpatient therapy and many parents don’t have that. … We are really struggling with finding some sort of recovery system within the community.”

Boatner described students who don’t have anywhere to go outside of a church setting.

“There is nowhere for young people to go to kind of be sober and meet new people and have that social support,” Boatner said. “The social supports are really lacking. There’s not a lot of sober environments for students to attend outside of the school.”

Boatner said there is one meeting every Friday for adolescents in a 12-step program in the northwestern district.

“I have 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds attending meetings with adults,” Boatner said. “They do not relate to adults. They don’t have a mortgage and their boss isn’t mad at them.”

Borgstrom said after students go to a residential placement for six weeks, instead of a step-down program, they go right back to school – and then are hospitalized again.

Difficult conversation

Underwood acknowledged that this was a difficult conversation to have.

“In this community, for middle school and high school students, they are introduced to illicit drugs in a very casual environment. It is very, very, very, very prevalent and normal and routine,” Underwood said, restating the problem so she was clear. “These (drugs) are available in the home and frequently a parent also has a substance abuse disorder and may not be in treatment.”

While the school district contracts with outside agencies to help the student – the incentive being to reduce the length of suspension – they have limited options to keep them from relapsing, Underwood repeated.

Underwood said what she was told that day was not being brought up among the groups who come to Washington, D.C.

“We don’t hear this conversation – ever,” Underwood said. “This conversation has never come up in a town hall – to date – even in private conversations. … I am so grateful you were so candid in flagging these issues. My commitment is to see it through and see where we can be helpful.”

Other mental health providers described dire circumstances in which there were not enough mental health providers and psychiatrists for the need – especially for children and teens or people with schizophrenia.

Eric Ward, executive director of Family Counseling Service in Aurora, said they have more than 300 clients on a waiting list for lack of clinicians.

Laura Poss, executive director of TriCity Family Services, said her agency was the safety net for people with severe mental illness.

“We don’t turn people away because of severity,” Poss said. “This is our duty and our responsibility to the seriously mentally ill.”

When Underwood asked what concrete thing she could do to help, Ward said she could work to make mental health services an improved area for student loan reimbursement to draw counselors and psychiatric providers to the community.

“We cannot find the people we need to help the people in our community,” Ward said. “Those are very concrete things that will have an impact tomorrow.”

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