In 2004, the state of Illinois rolled out a program to improve how it responds to children from low-income families facing a mental health crisis.
Called SASS (short for Screening, Assessment and Support Services), the program is meant to help families with Medicaid or no health insurance navigate a complicated series of handoffs to get treatment — from an initiating event through the patchwork of mental health services.
Today in Illinois, an estimated 1.5 million children receive Medicaid benefits — roughly 50% of the state’s children, according to a report released in February.
But how does a family in need access this help?
Here’s how SASS works
First, a call is made to the CARES hotline about a child, most often by someone from a school or a hospital. Parents can also call the hotline themselves.
Then, SASS providers from one of more than two dozen nonprofits around the state are dispatched to evaluate the child. The SASS worker interviews the child, often with a parent and sometimes with a school or medical professional present. A main goal is to determine if the child is likely to harm themselves or others and requires immediate hospitalization.
This assessment is supposed to take place within 90 minutes of a hotline call. Last year, about 46,000 SASS calls required a rapid response.
After the initial assessment, the SASS worker is supposed to connect the child with help — from inpatient psychiatric care to outpatient therapy.
WBEZ found a dearth of inpatient and outpatient services to connect children with, particularly based on where a child lives. Some SASS providers offer therapy in-house, and others even send therapists to schools to work with children. Meanwhile, other SASS providers are overwhelmed with demand and are in communities with extremely limited mental health resources.
Youth mental health in Illinois
The SASS program is overseen by the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. HFS is responsible for ensuring that children get assessed quickly and that they get mental health follow-up care.
HFS largely outsources SASS to private insurance companies with Medicaid contracts.
If you live in Illinois and your child or adolescent is experiencing a mental health crisis, contact the CARES hotline at 1-800-345-9049. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.