Editorial: Even in austerity, keep priority on youth mental health

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted7/13/2015 4:07 PM

When it comes to discussing funding for addressing the mental health needs of Illinois youth, we have to be realistic. The outlook for advances, perhaps even for stability, in a state that is sliding backward economically is not promising. But two very different stories by Daily Herald staff writer Marie Wilson over the weekend emphasize how important it is, whatever resources are available, to place a priority on mental health treatment for young people.

Ben Silver, of Downers Grove, was being treated for the mental health issues that began to overwhelm him his sophomore year in college, and he had the benefit of a supportive family. All that, though, still could not spare this talented athlete, musician and writer from death at age 22 by suicide. He was an accomplished student who had attended Miami University of Ohio on an athletic scholarship. Imagine, then, the struggles faced by young people who don't have the community, family and personal supports that were available to him.


That is just what a rejuvenated commission is doing in DuPage County as it focuses on ways to help young people who enter the juvenile justice system or, better still, to keep them out of it.

Shannon Hartnett is coordinator of the juvenile justice council -- a body including judges, police, health officials, legal representatives and social service providers -- which has been resurrected thanks to $130,000 in federal grant money acquired through the state department of human services.

She found as she began preparing for the group's revival that 65 percent of the young people who entered the juvenile justice system in March had been flagged for mental illness conditions ranging from bipolar disorder to depression. How those kids acquired their illness and the degree to which it contributed to their troubles with the law are important but open questions, but one observation goes without saying. The juvenile justice system is not likely to make them better.

Finding what will help and what will keep them out of the system in the first place is a key mission of the DuPage juvenile justice council, which will begin its examination working with researchers at Aurora University's criminal justice department. Beyond recognizing the link between the system and mental illness, the council has yet to develop strategies, but is concentrating on community-based approaches and awareness campaigns.

It's a reasonable place to start and recognizes, in Harnett's words, "we just don't have those resources" to address the problem from within the system. With the resources likely to remain in short supply, the group can make headway by turning to community programs and educating students, parents, educators and everyone who deals with young people about the prevalence and pernicious dangers of mental illness.

The statistics demonstrate the costs mental illness imposes on society; stories like that of Ben Silver show its imposing strength. Our state will not survive the coming years without some measure of austerity, we know; but what survives will be demonstrably weaker if we ignore the effects of mental illness on the young.

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