NAMI Illinois focused on expanding community-based workforce solutions to address COVID-related youth mental health disparities


Boram Kim


The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Illinois, the state’s affiliate organization for the nationwide group, plans to focus its efforts on recruiting and training individuals with lived mental health challenges to help provide counseling and treatment for youth with severe mental health conditions. 


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In an interview with State of Reform, Andrew Wade, executive director of NAMI Illinois, says pandemic-related work shortages have spurred statewide efforts to promote the diversity of the behavioral health workforce, including the creation of a community health worker (CHW) training program focused on treating severe major depressive episodes (MDE). 

“We try to do everything through the lens of health equity. Today, we were having a conversation with the group that does borderline personality disorder (BPD) awareness about the tremendously huge rates of suicide [associated with BPD]—that there are certain conditions that have high rates of suicide.

We’re thinking, ‘How is it that we can really zero in on those specific issues or specific conditions that are most dangerous, not at the exclusion of other things, but in order to move the needle?’ Because we’ve been talking about rising suicide rates and depression being [an] epidemic since well before the pandemic.”

— Andrew Wade, executive director of NAMI Illinois

NAMI Illinois supports education and training for dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a cognitive behavioral treatment developed to help people manage symptoms considered challenging to treat such as impulsivity, interpersonal problems, emotional dysregulation, self-harm, and suicidal behaviors. 

The organization has partnered with a local hospital think tank on developing and training CHWs to deliver NAMI programs that utilize DBT beyond its traditional scope to address a broader range of behavioral health issues. 

Wade says the goal is to promote diversity among CHWs and other mental health professionals who are able to deliver NAMI programs and evidence-based therapies within their own communities. 

“We began looking at ways to open doors for people who have lived mental health experience, particularly in underrepresented communities, to get into the entry-stage roles in the mental health career pipeline, but not stop there. There are a lot of quasi-mental health jobs out there, where people are doing wonderful work without the benefit of people investing in their education or their certification.

So we kind of zeroed in on that as a way that we could make a difference and a way that we can welcome a lot of people into our field quickly.”

— Wade

According to the 2023 State of Mental Health in America report, Illinois ranked ninth overall in the report’s ranking of states based on the prevalence of mental health issues and access to care (based on data through 2020).

Illinois saw the largest jump in the percentage of youth with severe MDEs who received consistent treatment, from 25% in 2017-2018 to 44.7% in 2019-2020. However, it also had the sixth lowest rate of treatment for youth with MDEs at 39.9%. 

Yet the data did not capture the full impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which took a toll on the state’s behavioral health workforce and equitable access to care.

A new report on COVID-era mental health in America shows mental health disparities are greater for young adults, racial/ethnic minority groups, and certain subpopulations such as lesbian, gay, or bisexual individuals and people with disabilities. 

In 2021, young adults had the widest disparities compared to adults 50 years and older for suicidal thoughts (6.4 times higher), MDE symptoms (four times higher), unmet mental health treatment needs (3.2 times higher), depression, and substance use disorder. 

Black youth had a 7.2 times higher likelihood of exposure to multiple household-level adverse childhood experiences compared to Asian youth, and a 1.5 times higher rate compared to Hispanic youth. Meanwhile, Hispanic youth had 1.5 times the MDE rate compared to Black youth. 

As part of the state’s Children’s Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative (CBHTI), NAMI Illinois is working with its local affiliates to expand its evidence-based school suicide prevention program ‘Ending the Silence,’ which utilizes student peers who have recovered from mental health struggles to share their experiences with other students. 

“We’d like to have [Ending the Silence] in every school. Right now [in Illinois] we don’t have the capacity, so building that out [will be key along with] drilling down at critical issues like suicide.

So we may well be integrating pieces of other evidence-based strategies into that [program], but that will be the kind of thing NAMI Illinois does. We serve our 19 affiliates, but frankly, we learn a lot from them and so gathering them to solve this problem on scale, we hope will be a model.”

— Wade