Pritzker M1 Addresses Mental Health Crisis in Tribune Op-Ed

In a new Op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune on Monday, first-year Pritzker student Tony Liu offered potential solutions for the nation’s youth mental health crisis.

Last week, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory on the youth mental health crisis, which has been exposed by the pandemic. That followed the declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health by a group of professional pediatric organizations in October. Liu, who came to Pritzker after three years working in public radio, began contemplating new ways to attack the problem as part of the final assignment in his first-year course “The American Healthcare System,” which is directed by Dr. V. Ram Krishnamoorthi and Dr. Greg W. Ruhnke. His op-ed was accepted for publication by the Tribune even before the assignment submission deadline.

“I was really pleasantly surprised,” Krishnamoorthi said of the publication. “It confirmed for me that a nudge can sometimes be all it takes.”

Krishnamoorthi said students in the course used to be given topics for their final written assignment. In response to a growing desire among students to choose their own topics, he let students do so for the first time this year while also choosing their format. After Krishnamoorthi and student leaders from the Health Policy Interest Group invited Dr. Shikha Jain from University of Illinois at Chicago to lead an op-ed workshop, op-ed was among the options. 

“A flood of submissions came through, and in the end, the majority of the class chose to write an op-ed style piece,” Krishnamoorthi said, adding that several more students plan to submit their op-eds for publication.

In the Tribune op-ed, Liu challenged current billing practices related to mental health care, noting that clinical social workers are unable to bill for the full scope of their work under current Medicare rules and citing efforts by the American Psychological Association and the U.S. Congress to improve billing options for mental health providers. Fixing billing deficiencies, Liu suggested, could address the existing shortage of mental health professionals that is only projected to get worse.

“Billing and coding are unglamorous,” Liu wrote. “But they represent an opportunity to target the structural roots of our workforce deficit.”

Additionally, Liu contends in the op-ed, mental health providers must be more adequately compensated in order to combat workforce attrition. Multiple reports on health professional pay show mental health providers—particularly social workers—are compensated notably less than other healthcare workers like nurses or primary care providers. Liu highlighted another legislative effort, the Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act, that could help address the youth mental health crisis by increasing the number of certified community behavioral health clinics (CCBHCs), which “offer timely and affordable mental health services while expanding coverage to underserved populations” and offer better compensation to social workers. The bill is currently making its way through the U.S. Senate.

Krishnamoorthi said in recent years he has seen an increasing number of first-year Pritzker students arrive with an appetite for advocacy, and op-eds present a powerful platform, one he hopes to see continue to grow among students.

“In the last several years, it’s been clear that not only are there opportunities for health professionals to lend their voice to the conversation but also a growing sense of responsibility to take on that advocacy role,” Krishnamoorthi said. “Writing is one powerful way to do that.”

Liu concluded the op-ed by encouraging readers to urge their legislators to pass the legislation that could help build a more adequate mental health workforce. 

“In completing my medical training,” Liu wrote. “I hope to become one of many other future individuals tending to the mental health needs of our youths.”