BLOOMINGTON — Long road trips for parents who can't afford psychiatric care for their children may be coming to an end with the career shift of a Twin City child psychiatrist.
Dr. Diana Chu's decision to accept a full-time position with Chestnut Health Systems' Family Health Clinic is expected to fill a gap in services for families who travel to Springfield, Champaign and other locations.
At a time when many people are slowing down in their careers, Chu is expanding her workload. Serving the poorest and youngest is a calling from which Chu is not ready to retire.
“I have worked with a variety of social service agencies for my past 18-plus years in the community. I have been able to relate to people from all walks of life and have enjoyed helping those in need, especially those who have had difficulty accessing psychiatric care with Medicaid,” said Chu.
Chestnut also is working to recruit an adult psychiatrist for its Bloomington clinic that has seen 2,300 patients since it opened in 2011 for adult and pediatric primary care.
In December, Chestnut received federal approval to add psychiatric care as part of its model to integrate physical and mental health care under one roof.
Chestnut’s Executive Director Dietra Kulicke expects Chu to become busy quickly; a nurse practitioner could be added.
“I think there is more demand than ever for child and adolescent psychiatry,” said Kulicke.
Ken Fosnot, associate director of Chestnut’s adolescent addiction programs, estimated that 80 percent of youths treated for substance abuse also have mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Currently, 400 indigent minors in McLean County require services for a serious mental health need. When hospitalization is required, they are taken to facilities outside the county because the Twin Cities lack a residential mental health facility for youth.
McLean County is not alone in that struggle: 84 of Illinois’ 102 counties are without a child psychiatrist and 64 counties have no psychiatrist, according to the Illinois Hospital Association.
Inpatient facilities for any age group are in short supply, too. There are 53 counties in the state with no inpatient psychiatric services and another 24 counties with no hospital.
Ann Bergstrom, clinical director for the Central Illinois region of the state Department of Children and Family Services, said local agencies sometimes struggle to keep up with the number of children in state care who need services.
"We're seeing a lot of young children coming into the hospitals. They are coming into the system at a younger age and experiencing severe trauma," said Bergstrom.
When children are in the midst of a mental health crisis, securing the right resources may involve several hours of effort by multiple people, making multiple phone calls.
Stephanie Barisch, regional clinical supervisor with the Center for Youth and Family Solutions, said last year center staff screened 391 children for mental health services under the Screening Assessment and Support Services (SASS) program. Those covered by Medicaid or who lack financial resources are eligible for 90 days of services, starting with crisis care.
According to Barisch, about 20 percent of the 400 youth currently on the SASS caseload “are on heavy duty medication and need more follow up than we can do.”
The SASS youth receive psychiatric services from a Champaign doctor who divides eight hours of service a month between Bloomington and his Champaign office. Transportation to Champaign is an issue for some parents, said Barisch.
When more care is needed, “we are calling hospitals and arranging transportation. We are always shipping kids somewhere else,” said Barisch.
Last year, the McLean County Center for Human Services served 560 youths through its clinic and outreach programs. For the past three years, the McLean County Health Department has provided CHS with funding for counseling and therapy services for youth who are not on Medicaid.
According to CHS, beginning in fiscal year 2015, the agency will dip into its reserves to provide counseling services to high-risk youth who do not receive Medicaid. A CHS request for about $50,000 from the health department to serve high-risk youths was turned down during the recent round of funding.