A Publication of WTVP

‘No child should suffer a life derailed by untreated mental illness’

by Mike Bailey | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Mary Sparks Thompson, president of UnityPoint Health-UnityPlace
Mary Sparks Thompson, president of UnityPoint Health-UnityPlace

UnityPoint’s Young Minds Center aims to fill a huge need in central Illinois.

As a parent, you’re at wit’s end.

A child’s behavior has changed dramatically, and it’s increasingly obvious that it’s more than just the growing pains of adolescence.

You’d prefer to deal with this privately, of course. You try to reassure yourself that it’s all just a phase, but it’s like you don’t know this person anymore. She has closed herself off, stopped communicating, begun locking herself in her room for long stretches. Sometimes, you think you see evidence of self-harm — redness here, a scratch there. The weight loss is noticeable. Ah, maybe it’s just your imagination.

You and your spouse argue all the time now about how to deal with this, and it’s starting to take a toll on the entire family. Two other kids need attention, too. The worry is constant. At work, it’s hard to concentrate, and don’t think your boss and colleagues haven’t noticed. Sometimes you fear leaving the house because of what might happen when you’re gone. A teacher at your child’s school pulls you aside and voices a concern. 

It has taken a lot of sleepless nights to get to this point, but ultimately, there is a family consensus: Outside help is needed. An appointment is scheduled at a local mental health facility, where you encounter what you’d never even considered:

Yes, your child is clinically depressed, and intervention probably is needed, but —  we’re so sorry — there is just no room at the inn. All beds are taken by what we believe are even sicker children and adolescents.

A feeling of helplessness sinks in: You are on your own. What are you to do? 

The above narrative is a composite of many a family’s story, and it has been the traumatic reality for far too many central Illinoisans over the years.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Mary Sparks Thompson, president of UnityPoint Health-UnityPlace and the person in charge of seeing to it that, at long last, help is on the way.

To the rescue

Approvals have been granted, property has changed hands, funds are being raised and plans are being drawn up for what likely will be called the Young Minds Center, an all-encompassing juvenile behavioral health facility to be located in the former Heddington Oaks facility in West Peoria, previously the home of Peoria County’s public nursing home. UnityPoint officials expect to open the state-of-the-art center a year from now.

The need is clear and overwhelming.

Indeed, UnityPoint officials have noted that over the last five years, some 2,600 children were turned away locally for the treatment they needed due to a lack of resources, space, staff, all against a backdrop of elevated demand. 

“That’s just staggering to me,” said Thompson, a nurse and social worker by training who moved to Peoria for the UnityPoint job in early 2022.  “We need to stem the tide there.”

Children facing especially severe and life-altering challenges may be referred to alternative in-patient hospital placements in Chicago or Springfield, but for some families, that’s a whole other hardship and hurdle.

“If you can imagine having a child in crisis and they have to be two hours away,” said Thompson. “Part of the success in treating children and adolescents is to involve the family or their natural support system in treatment. It’s very difficult to do that when they’re physically remote or removed from the child. And it’s lonely for that child.”

An average stay of seven to 10 days is “a very long time,” said Thompson. “It’s just so disruptive.”

Not every struggling child needs hospitalization, of course, and for the “old-school social worker” in Thompson, the less restrictive environment, the better. Nevertheless, while UnityPoint has “great community partners that do a yeoman’s job,” the reality is that some children “need highly specialized care and it’s just difficult to find placement for them.”

In the Young Minds Center, UnityPoint will spend up to $30 million becoming that place, converting what was once a large and sprawling nursing home into an inpatient and outpatient facility catering to children age 4 to 12 and adolescents age 13 to 17 in a park-like, neighborhood setting.

The number of juvenile beds in town will double to 44, as will the professional staff available to assist them. Modern classrooms will provide ongoing education. Children can be segregated by gender and age — “How you talk to a child who is 6 is different than how you talk to a 17-year-old,” said Thompson — which allows for patient-specific, developmentally appropriate treatment, which in turn “enhances clinical outcomes.” An outbreak of COVID need not take beds out of service.

Meanwhile, there’s room to house community partners providing the preventive and post-discharge services young people need and the ongoing training that professionals require. Substance abuse treatment will be part of the program, when necessary. The kids will have their own dining facility, an indoor recreation center and outdoor courtyards.

It’s a significant change in scenery from the urban, more institutional feel of the eighth floor in the main hospital tower where UnityPoint provides its juvenile behavioral health services now.

“We can take an existing facility, repurpose it to meet a community need that’s being unmet, and do it in a cost-efficient way both in terms of our costs and the cost benefit to the community,” said Thompson. “The real goal is to make the care approachable, to make it easy for families to receive services, to try to provide that care in a very warm, healing environment.”

A proud and Innovative history

This newest effort is something of a natural evolution for UnityPoint, which as Methodist Hospital began pioneering community-based mental health care for local adults way back in 1954, adding adolescents to the mix just over three decades later.

At the time, psychiatric hospitals tended to be regional institutions, such as Zeller Mental Health Center, which closed in 2002, and Peoria State Hospital before that. 

In 2019, UnityPlace was created through the merger of UnityPoint Health, Human Service Center and Tazwood Center for Wellness with the mission of providing comprehensive, integrated mental health and addiction services to the region. Today, UnityPlace operates 39 programs across four different levels of behavioral health care, including a 65-bed psychiatric unit for adults.

“We have soup-to-nuts behavioral health service in central Illinois, so a chance to bring together all those different types of resources under one umbrella was really exciting to me… part of an ongoing effort to be where clients need us when they need us,” said Thompson.

“Our goal is to be best in class and to really be a national center for others to model.”

A stressed era

Mental illness diagnoses are up, but so are hospitalizations and suicides, dramatically in some cases.

“Depression, anxiety and grief are the three main things that we’re seeing,” said Thompson. “We know that 17 percent of Peoria 10th graders seriously consider suicide. To me that’s heartbreaking.”

So what’s going on? Are American children just less resilient than they used to be?

On the plus side, people who once suffered in silence now are more likely to seek help, in large part because “there’s a reduced stigma,” said Thompson.

anxious child

“Five years, maybe 10 years ago, people were very reluctant to share a personal experience with mental illness, either themselves or their families.

“Now we’ve had public figures come out and talk… Michael Phelps was one of the first ones, the Olympic swimmer saying ‘I’ve struggled with depression.’ You look at him and go, ‘How can you train to be an elite athlete and manage depression, too?’ It gave a platform for people to begin speaking about their own mental health challenges.”

The pandemic, meanwhile, changed everything for everybody. The social isolation it produced hit children disproportionately hard. Some parents had to alter the way they did their jobs or leave the work force altogether to stay home to supervise remote learning. That created financial pressures. People masked up.

“When families are stressed, kids are stressed. That’s just the way it goes,” said Thompson. “And our families have been very stressed through the pandemic.”

Well before COVID, children had become glued to their screens. 

“The biggest impact is the comparisons and the exclusions and it’s pervasive,” Thompson said. “I think about myself as a 14-year-old awkward adolescent. It’s death by a thousand cuts… This friend group went and did that and I’m at home. What happened? Who didn’t call me?

“Children kind of relate to the world through their phones. And if that phone isn’t giving them good feedback, I think they’re very vulnerable. Really, what children want is to be liked and to be included and to have good friendships. And social media can impact that.”

Meanwhile, violence has been normalized in American culture, either as entertainment or the real thing. Impressionable, impulsive and sometimes bullied kids don’t always think things through.

Finally, parenting has changed.

“You can’t just play soccer anymore, you’re going to be on a travel team. You can’t just play in a marching band… you’re going to go to competitions. There’s a lot of pressure on kids,” said Thompson. And that’s for often resourced parents. Economically and socially disadvantaged families face other challenges meeting just basic needs. Children are attuned to the anxieties that can produce, and sometimes internalize them.

“But I really think the biggest driving force is how children are relating to one another,” said Thompson.

And it all adds up to the need for this facility.

A big return on investment

As always, the availability of resources is central not only to providing the quality of services but the quantity, too. 

“This has been a very successful capital campaign,” said UnityPoint Vice President Mike Unes, who runs the organization’s central Illinois foundation. “We’re just in awe.” 

The fundraising effort is very close to its goal of $12 million in donations, to be put toward the project’s brick-and-mortar needs. That includes a $1 million gift from an anonymous donor, $2 million in federal contributions through a request to Congressman Darin LaHood’s office, and $500,000 from CEFCU. Grant dollars also are being pursued.

Meanwhile, the fundraising continues — you can give at — with UnityPoint offering naming rights opportunities and hoping to establish an endowment to offset ongoing operational expenses, as this is less a profit center than “a responsibility to be there for the hospital so much as “a responsibility to be there for the community,” said Unes.

What does that generosity buy?

A healthier, safer community and more peace of mind, for starters, which has wide-ranging spinoff benefits.

“When you have a child who receives treatment out of the area, maybe they have a discharge plan, maybe they don’t,” said Thompson. “If we’re able to stabilize that child, give them good coping skills, help that family, their trajectory is much more positive. If we don’t do that, what is the impact on that child? Maybe they don’t reach their full potential, whatever that potential may be. Maybe that family is more disrupted than they would have been. Maybe a parent has to drop out of the workforce to handle the issues… Parents split up, or other children are impacted… Then, suicide is always a risk.”

For countless central Illinoisans, then, the Young Minds Center represents a potential lifesaver that cannot arrive soon enough.

Mike Bailey

Mike Bailey

is editor in chief of Peoria Magazine [email protected]