When it comes to mental health, stigma and shame force many to hide their struggles. But what happens when the struggles in McHenry County are too great to hide?
Shortly before I started as the executive director of NAMI McHenry County (National Alliance on Mental Illness), we led a suicide prevention training for fifth-graders, the youngest grade we have trained to date. After the one-hour training, half of the students approached our instructor to share that they were struggling, or that they had a friend who was struggling. That’s half the class. This experience points to a larger issue in McHenry County – our residents, and especially our youth, are experiencing a serious mental health crisis.
Recent research indicates that 40% of our residents are struggling with their mental health, a number that has doubled since 2020. Suicides in the county surged by 72% from 2020 to 2022, with 2023 poised for another bleak record. McHenry County’s suicide and self-harm rates per 100,000 people are almost eight times higher than state and national averages.
Why are McHenry County residents, in particular, struggling so much? According to the recently released “Blueprint for Transformation: A Plan to Improve Illinois Children’s Behavioral Health,” McHenry County has a high estimated number of youth with mental health needs with a relatively poor proximity to community-based mental health service providers. In other words: We have too few mental health services to meet the surging demand.
This crisis has been building for years. In the 10 years leading up to the pandemic, feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness, as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors, increased by about 40% among young people, according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. The pandemic made things worse for a generation of youth, and many adults as well.
The mental health crisis also affects our economy. Across the U.S., serious mental illness causes $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year, and individuals with a mental health condition have a higher rate of unemployment (7.4%) than those who do not (4.6%). Some 44% of people in local jails have a history of mental illness.
There are many factors affecting the mental health crisis that are hard to control. We suffered through a years-long pandemic that led to social isolation and academic disruption. Many people in our community lost their jobs or were victims of abuse at home. Social media, violence, increasing natural disasters and a deepening political divide all play a part. However, there is something unique going on in McHenry County exacerbating these struggles: the lack of resources to meet the growing need. Consistent underfunding for mental health services has left the county in a state of crisis and soaring inflation rates has made a bad situation even worse. Lack of services not only costs individuals and their families, but it also has a significant negative impact on the entire economy. Lack of adequate funding is at the core of the problem and one that we can take action to solve.
The McHenry County Board will soon decide on whether to increase the budget for the McHenry County Mental Health Board, which allocates funds to 30 agencies in the county. The MHB is seeking a much-needed increase in order to sustain services and close gaps in care. Without this critical funding, McHenry County will remain in a perpetual state of crisis. County Board members need to hear from their constituents that now is the time to prioritize mental health in our county by supporting this increase in the MHB’s budget. County Board budget discussion will begin at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28, during a Special Call Meeting. Public Comments are permitted at all County Board meetings.
How else can you help? Support local mental health providers. NAMI McHenry County provides free mental health services, and we could use your support. We aim to raise $40,000 by Oct. 31 through our Matching Campaign, where your donation will be matched dollar for dollar. You also can attend our Pancake Breakfast on Oct. 21. For donations, sign-ups or volunteer opportunities, visit namimch.org.
In addition, everyone can help by educating themselves on mental health and suicide prevention. Sign up for upcoming QPR Suicide Prevention Training or Mental Health First Aid training sessions at namimch.org/workshops. Any one of us has the potential to save a life.
Finally, everyone can help end the stigma around mental health. Ask your neighbors, your friends, and your family how they’re doing. Listen without judgment, providing resources and support. Familiarize yourself with essential local resources like 988, 211 and the McHelp app, which offers a local service directory.
Let’s normalize therapy, medication, and lifestyles that prioritize mental wellness. With appropriate public funding, private investments and individual action, we can all contribute to overcoming our county’s mental health crisis.
• Abbey Nicholas is executive director of NAMI McHenry County (National Alliance on Mental Illness).