5/25/21 Valley oaks conference

Clint Kugler speaks to fellow mental health service providers and legislators about the mental health of youths at the Valley Oaks Health conference on Tuesday.

Local mental health providers found that 2020 saw a dramatic increase in the need for mental health services, especially among young people.

Providers at Mental Health America — Wabash River Valley and Valley Oaks Health noted the increase in the need for their services over the year.

Brandi Christiansen, president and CEO of MHA, said the company’s Crisis Call Center received 7,628 calls in 2020; in 2019, the company logged roughly 4,000 calls for help. Of those calls, 322 were from people who reported that they were younger than 18.

When it came to mental health test screenings, Christiansen said the total 2020 screenings nearly tripled since 2019, with 1,772. Of the 1,772 screenings, 320 were from people younger than 18.

According to Christiansen’s evidence-based ranking, the illnesses individuals were screening for were depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, PTSD and eating disorders. People called the Crisis Center about suicide, general mental health concerns, personal relationships, basic needs and abuse.

“Too many of our young people are struggling under the weight of trauma, of poverty, of isolation,” said Clint Kugler, vice president of statewide engagement and advocacy at the Indiana Youth Institute.

Christiansen and Kugler want to help with the rise in the youth’s mental health issues, so on Tuesday they — along with other local service providers — met with legislators on Tuesday to discuss these trends and how to go about intervention and prevention.

And though the increase in screenings and calls were due to COVID-19, Christiansen said she doesn’t think the reasons for the calls and screenings were a result of the pandemic.

“Youth were presenting (mental illnesses) before COVID,” Christiansen said. “But I don’t think COVID’s helped.”

Indiana ranks 28th in the nation on the prevalence of mental health issues amongst youths, Kugler said. About 15% of kids ages 12 to 17 in Indiana experience a depressive episode, and 10% experience anxiety issues. However, the demographics increase dramatically when college-aged clients enter the picture.

“Nearly 40% of college students experience a mental health crisis,” said Alicia Kielmovitch, vice president of data, analytics, and research at IYI. “And almost 12% considering suicide.”

The need for mental health services also increased the need for mental health workers.

Zoe Frantz, Valley Oaks Health’s chief strategy officer and director of business development, said the mental health workforce has faced a shortage since long before the pandemic began for reasons such as the high burnout rate, a lack of clinical social working programs, the difficult work-life balance and the payment structure, which Frantz says has not been updated since the 1970s.

To meet the demand for its services despite the shortage, Valley Oaks Health is recruiting workers in positions such as licensed clinical social workers, non-licensed case managers and other clinical physician positions. According to a recent news release, Valley Oaks Health hired 47 new employees in 2020 but continues to search for more employees with events such as a hiring blitz the company held last week.

Proposed legislation also aims to provide sufficient mental health support. The 988 Initiative proposes a central call number for mental health crises, much like 911 is meant for public safety emergencies. The initiative was passed federally in 2020 by the Federal Communications Commission and Indiana legislation recently passed the initiative, though it has yet to take effect in the state.

Instead of law enforcement answering mental health-related calls, the initiative send a mobile response team consisting of peers who have experienced similar experiences with the caller, a case manager and a therapist to help the caller get the intervention they need.

But no money is allotted to push the initiative, despite state officials requesting federal funding, according to Frantz. For now, it is up for the mental health service providers to continue advocating for it.

“Tippecanoe County is very rich in collaboration … if it takes all of us to build this mobile system, I think that’s what leaders in the community will decide to do,” Frantz said. “We don’t know what that will look like yet, but it’s out there.”

Right now, programs with Valley Oaks and MHA can help those with mental illnesses. MHA’s Navigator program connects youths and families to service providers in the region that can help with mental health crises or substance use, and its Mental Health First Aid program trains attendees to recognize early warning signs of a mental illness.

Valley Oaks Health launched its #ShineOnCampaign, a May awareness campaign. #ShineOnCampaign focuses on encouraging mental health workers who endured the pandemic.

“Mental health and substance use is a lifetime recovery process,” Frantz said. “I know everyone wants that cure or that fix, but it’s a journey.”

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