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Pritzker pledges to expand access to mental health care in Illinois

man talking to a crowd
Gov. JB Pritzker speaks to an audience of professionals from the behavioral and mental health field at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library on May 15. He said the state needs to make mental health services more accessible.

SPRINGFIELD – In the middle of Mental Health Awareness Month, Gov. JB Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton hosted a panel in Springfield this week at which he pledged to expand the state’s behavioral health services.

With several dozen services providers from around the state in attendance, Pritzker and panelists floated ideas to improve access to mental health care for Illinoisans, like mandating a social worker be in every school and drafting a “Mental Health Bill of Rights” – a document that will affirm the state’s mental health system as one for people of all backgrounds. 

Pritzker said it’s necessary to buck trends of the past, when discussions surrounding mental health were quickly swept under the rug, in private or public life – and received little government attention.

“If you could roll the time backward 10 years, very few people talked publicly about mental health challenges that they personally were having,” Pritzker said during the panel, which was attended by a Capitol News Illinois reporter. “We have to just think about the individual who has no alternative – they don’t have choices – and we have to give them opportunities to get help.”

The governor spoke about his personal experiences and recounted the struggles his mother – who he credits as spurring his political career – had with alcohol as he was growing up in the 1970s. Sue Pritzker died in 1982, leaving the future governor an orphan at 17 years old.

“She drank to self-medicate,” he said. “She was somebody who was an activist, a caregiver and she was a widow with three young children when my father died.”

Pritzker emphasized that his mother had the money to access care, given the family’s enormous wealth, but he said shame and guilt prevented her from seeking professional aid.

“Even with the resources, partly because of stigma, it’s hard to go seek help,” Pritzker said. “In some ways, my experience with that instilled in me a desire to try to address the challenges that are now referred to as behavioral health.”

He and Stratton suggested mental and physical health care should be considered with equal weight. Stratton, who chairs the recently formed Healing-Centered Illinois Task Force, also said mental health care needs to be accessible to everyone, regardless of race or income.

“It’s not okay if just some communities are healing and others aren’t,” she said. “If some communities are saying, ‘Now, it’s accessible,’ but others are left behind.”

As stigma continues to decrease for those seeking mental health care, existing practitioners can’t keep up with the rising need. More than half of respondents – 56 percent – to the American Psychological Association’s 2023 “Pulse” survey, said they had no openings for new patients.

Illinois officials have responded by easing barriers to enter the profession in recent years. The National Association of Social Workers Illinois Chapter earlier this year praised a 2021 law that did away with a previously mandated test for licensure that the organization said was biased.

Since the law took effect, the number of licensed social workers in Illinois has more than doubled in two years. As of early December, there were more than 10,000 LSWs in Illinois, though that figure does not include licensed clinical social workers or school social workers.

NASW-IL noted that 12 percent of those LSWs came from out of state. Pritzker, in 2022, signed legislation that made it easier for behavioral health workers licensed in other states to become licensed in Illinois and enabled in-state providers with lapsed licenses to easily get reinstated.

On Wednesday, Pritzker credited “greater investments” in mental health – such as being able to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars to expand services and creating the state’s Children’s Behavioral Transformation Initiative – to Illinois’ improving financial picture, though he added, “there’s a whole lot more to do.”

“You can’t do any of this stuff unless your fiscal health is such that you can make major investments,” he said. “And we have so much more to do in that regard.”

Pritzker wondered aloud why the state isn’t putting more social workers in schools. Hopeful Futures Campaign, a childhood mental health advocacy group, reported Illinois only had one school social worker for nearly every 750 students in 2022 – a caseload nearly three times the Illinois State Board of Education’s recommended ratio.

“We’ve got to make strides with a social worker in every school,” Pritzker said. “I know we say we can’t afford it, but I don’t know why we aren’t making that a high priority.”

Child welfare expert Dana Weiner, chief of the state’s Children’s Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative, said the state is crafting a new social work pilot program.

“We’re working on developing a pilot for in-home behavioral health aides for young people who have autism spectrum disorders and behavioral health needs,” she said.

No timetable was given on when such a pilot might be introduced.

Weiner announced the state is drafting a “Mental Health Bill of Rights” – also without a timeline – that will eventually “serve as a declaration of our aspirations for an improved mental health service system,” she said.

“Someday, when we get there, (it will) grant all Illinoisans the assurance that they can seek help without stigma in their community, in their language in their culture, and that they have access to timely and effective services and that they know where to go for help,” she said.

A day after the event, House Bill 5457, which would require agencies that license behavioral health workers to “allow reasonable accommodations for applicants for whom English is not their primary language and a test in their primary language test is not available,” passed the Senate and awaits Pritzker’s approval.


Hannah Meisel contributed.

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Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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