Leaders look at creating program at community colleges to ease shortage of mental health workers

“We have to invest now,” Colleen Cicchetti, a psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital, told a panel of legislators tasked with addressing the shortage.

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Mashana Smith, project director at Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing, left, and Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Center for Childhood Resilience, speak during the Illinois House Public Safety and Violence Prevention Task Force meeting at the Bilandic Building in the Loop, Thursday morning.

Mashana Smith, project director at Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing, left, and Colleen Cicchetti, executive director of Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Center for Childhood Resilience, speak during the Illinois House Public Safety and Violence Prevention Task Force meeting Thursday at the Bilandic Building in the Loop.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Community college programs that lead to certificates in behavioral health are being considered as a way to fill the gap of mental health professionals across the state.

“We’re looking at things like a youth worker certificate, so young people who get jobs who aren’t heading to college necessarily right away could start working in the communities that they’ve lived in,” Colleen Cicchetti, head of the Illinois Childhood Trauma Coalition, told a meeting Thursday of the House Public Safety and Violence Prevention Task Force.

The training would cover ways to recognize the symptoms of trauma, promote mental health awareness and support young people.

Cicchetti, a psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital, said she had a “heavy heart” after the Texas school massacre this week.

“This is a rough time in our country,” she said, noting that she felt “depleted” after spending much of the previous day speaking with news reporters about “how to talk to kids about things that we should never have to talk to kids about.”

“More than anything in my lifetime I want to make sure that we make some actual changes,” she said.

A major hurdle is the low wages offered to mental health workers, she said.

“We have to invest now,” she said during a task force meeting at the Bilandic Building in the Loop.

“People in our state will tell you that working as a social worker in some or our community-based organizations or as a licensed counselor, they make less money than people working at Walmart or Starbucks,” she said.

State Rep. Maria Hirschauer, D-West Chicago, said she was excited about the certificate program and hopes it will also help medical assistants, who often are the first people to come into contact with kids at doctor offices across Illinois.

Cicchetti said the idea was in many ways still in its infancy.

She stressed that there are many ways kids experience trauma and said Illinois “can’t mental health our way out of this.”

“We have got to equip all the adults who interact with kids ... with the skills that they need to promote health and wellness in our communities,” she said.

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