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Local

Critical Care – Day 1: Student’s death shows need for mental health services

College students among those at-risk

DeKALB – Quintonio LeGrier was an amiable young man, one of his high school math teacher’s favorite students. He was an inspiration, a determined person who motivated others to be better.

At least, that was how friends and relatives described the 19-year-old Northern Illinois University sophomore at his funeral Jan. 9.

“He left a huge imprint on my life to just keep going,” a cousin said at the public services.

But fellow students’ accounts and police records hint that the avid chess enthusiast and playground basketball player, who spent most of his childhood in foster care, might have been among the growing population of people who suffer from mental illness.

The Daily Chronicle will be examining how mental illness affects life in DeKalb County, in a three-part series that looks at those who need help, how they get help and what is being done to fill gaps in mental health services. We also will explore the challenges that people with mental illness pose to themselves and those around them.

Mental illness is a condition that experts say could impact one-fourth of college students, and about the same for U.S. adults in general. And use of “mental illness” also can be an umbrella term, Karyn Erkfritz said.

“There’s a lot different ways to define [mental illness],” said Erkfritz, a licensed clinical psychologist with KishHealth System, which is now part of Northwestern Medicine. “It’s probably used more as a catch-all.”

More pointedly, sources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness said that one in five adults have such mental conditions as depression and anxiety disorder. And one in 25 have more serious illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

LeGrier at times became detached from reality after he left his native Chicago and took up residence in an NIU dorm, family and friends said.

The day after Christmas, LeGrier was shot and killed at his father’s home by a Chicago police officer after police were called there for a domestic dispute. Police reported that they were met with a “combative” LeGrier on that fateful day. His father, Antonio, said his son was swinging a bat at him and screaming, “I’m not scared of you.”

At NIU, his friends with Black Male Initiative, a campus male mentoring organization, knew LeGrier as “Q.” They say they knew he was having problems that were affecting his behavior, and were working with him.

“I did know that he did have a

mental illness. ... Sometimes he would act out,” said Amirius Clinton, the director of marketing for BMI. Clinton first met LeGrier during the engineering major’s freshman year.

“People started to notice,” he said.

The head of the organization said BMI stands for brotherhood and that it had embraced LeGrier, realizing his struggles.

“We understood that he had been through some things in the past, but he was getting it together,” BMI President Jacob Clayton said. “We were helping him along the way, and he was stepping into his own.”

But a bad day – or even a string of them – isn’t mental illness, experts say. Erkfritz said it’s more about chronic, ongoing behavior.

Forty-eight pages of NIU police records detail several encounters in 2015 with LeGrier, whom the student officers came to know on a first-name basis.

Police were called for complaints of his “erratic behavior,” records show. One officer said there had been reports that LeGrier’s “mental state had deteriorated.”

Three months before he was shot by Chicago police, a similar scene played out in an NIU residence hall where several campus police officers confronted LeGrier – with their guns drawn.

According to a Sept. 2, 2015, campus police report, an officer on bike patrol rode up to a scene where LeGrier was chasing a female student near the residence hall. She was screaming as she ran from him, the report said.

He resisted arrest that night, according to the police report, resulting in additional officers being called to assist. Eventually, officers drew their weapons on LeGrier to get him to comply with their commands. LeGrier yelled, “I am God,” before he eventually was subdued and taken into custody, according to the police report.

The incident culminated with LeGrier being involuntarily committed to Kishwaukee Hospital for psychiatric treatment, officials said. His behavior that night was one in a string of “strange” occurrences on campus last year.

It was unclear if LeGrier was officially diagnosed with a mental disorder, or if he sought professional treatment or counseling before or after his involuntary psychiatric stint.

In fact, many people touched by mental illness don’t seek treatment. Although 80 percent of students whom NAMI surveyed reported feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities, 40 percent don’t try to get help.

Some of LeGrier’s high school buddies, who last played basketball with him last summer, said they noticed changes in him. 

“Over the summer, we noticed his demeanor changed at bit. He used to say some crazy stuff,” John Green said. “We reached out to him, but he said he was OK.”

Determining risk

Barring a diagnosis, who is at risk for being affected by mental illness?

“We’re finding across the country, across universities ... that college students are seeking services for mental health concerns at much higher rates, growing over the last five years,” said Brooke Ruxton, a licensed clinical psychologist and head of NIU’s Counseling and Consultation Services department. “College is kind of a time where there is a lot of melding together of different concerns and stressors [that students may have]. All of that together, in different ways, may contribute to seeing more of [mental health] concerns on college campuses.”

LeGrier might have brought his troubles with him to DeKalb. But officials here know that mental health is an issue for many residents, not just students.

“Anybody can get a mental illness at any time,” said Deanna Cada, executive director of the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board. But those at greater risk, she said, include people genetically predisposed to it, poor and low-income individuals, and those who have experienced trauma in their life.

She estimated that about 19 percent of DeKalb County residents – or about 20,000 people – have some sort of mental illness.

Cada said the county doesn’t keep a tally of individuals with mental health issues. She said numbers her organization uses to calculate and allocate money for services come from counts taken by funded agencies. DCMHB contributes to at least eight mental health provider organizations.

Getting help

Mental health services have declined nationwide, and DeKalb County is no exception.

In DeKalb County, there was public outcry when the underused inpatient mental health unit at Kishwaukee Hospital closed in 2009. And local law enforcement leaders have consistently decried not having sufficient training or resources to deal with individuals with mental illnesses, many of whom end up in jail.

The DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board, which helps fund mental health agencies here, has cut the money it gives to providers. Funding for mental health providers accounts for 85 percent of the board’s $1.9 million budget.

Members note that the demand for services and the treatment needs are “in excess of the total dollar amount available from tax levy to fund DeKalb County services,” according to the mental health board’s 2014 annual report.

NIU offers mental health services to students, although using them is voluntary. NIU counseling services employs eight psychologists, two licensed counselors, one victim advocate (for sexual assault), three full-time interns and five part-time practicum students, Ruxton said. Psychiatrists are available through the university’s health services department.

“We do a lot of consulting on campus with faculty and staff who might be concerned about someone,” Ruxton said.

The scope of the department’s services includes outreach and training throughout the campus community. Training is provided for faculty, but also residence hall workers and student groups, she said.

Ruxton said the university offers faculty training on how to engage with students who might be having issues. Training sessions are part of faculty development as well as orientation for new instructors.

“What we try to do is train faculty and staff to have some skills to use the connections they have to reach out to students and provide students with resources, and make sure students know what’s available to them,” she said.

The stigma associated with mental illness often keeps people from seeking professional help, Cada said. LeGrier’s situation demonstrates that such a decision can be a life or death one.

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