For N'dana Carter, the fight for the city's mental health services isn't just political; it's personal.
"I suffer from depression and panic attacks. In those panic attacks, sometimes I think about suicide," Carter said. "Without being able to go to the clinic, I could get help."
But you wouldn't guess Carter is struggling from the fight she showed today at a protest outside the University Club, awaiting Mayor Rahm Emanuel's arrival. She was ready to confront the mayor over claims that his administration may be privatizing city health services.
"It only costs $4 a month to each taxpayer, $48 a year, to keep these 12 clinics open," Carter said. "There are people who are in recovery right now, but that could stop on a dime."
Carter and Southside Together Organizing for Power organized the protest today after the city released its report on public health, "Transforming the Health of our City: Chicago Answers the Call." The mayor did not, however, answer the call of the protesters. I stood outside with them for two hours, waiting for the mayor to show and trying with the rest of the media to best plot out where he might enter--the main entrance, the back alley or even on the other side of the block.
Shortly after I left, the mayor did arrive, but he didn't talk to Carter or any of the protestors. Matt Ginsberg-Jaekle, an organizer with Southside Together Organizing for Power, said a black SUV pulled up to the entrance, stopped, and as the media prepared to descend, pulled around to the corner. By the time the media and protesters had gotten to the corner, Jaekle said, another SUV pulled up and rushed Rahm inside.
"It was a decoy car," Jaekle said. "We never got to come face-to-face with the mayor."
The group was hoping for some answers after they were also stood up earlier this month at a mental health town hall they set up for city health commissioner Bechara Choucair. After confirming his attendance four times, the group said, he backed out just two hours before the event, leaving concerned citizens without answers on what will happen to the city's mental health services.
Earlier that morning, Emanuel and Choucair both talked about the city's plan to work on health problems like obesity, breast cancer and cancer disparities. Emanuel emphasized that he wanted the city to focus on health goals, not delivery of services.
""The Chicago public health department is supposed to be about public health, not delivery, but public health," Emanuel said. "So it's setting clear goals, our north stars, in each of these areas, and then strategies to help implement them and make sure the communities most affected … that we have a strategy that's specific for the communities most affected as we try to make the reduction in that area."
Chouchair took questions on the city's mental health services, saying nothing definite about their future.
"We definitely believe people with mental illness, we want to make sure they do have access to high-quality level services," Choucair said. "And we're right now in the process of evaluating our mental health clinics. We've been engaging the different community partners. We're also meeting with the mental health advisory board tomorrow afternoon to get input."
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 46.4 percent of Americans suffer from some kind of mental illness. Carter said treatment saves the city money by not having to house mentally ill in jails and prisons, as well as the police time and energy to arrest them.
"The problem is, we've lost people," Carter said. "We don't know where they are. We don't know how many people in prison right now used to be patients of the city's mental health clinics."
In 2009, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed shutting down four of the city's 10 mental health clinics. The number of clinics had already been reduced from 20 during the previous decade. The mayor and the health department cited budget shortages as the reason, but an investigation by reporter Alex Parker at the Chi-town Daily News revealed that the city's billing system was incompatible with the state's. Because the city didn't respond to numerous requests by the state to fix their computer system problems, the city didn't get paid, even though the state was ready to reimburse it for services. Plans to close the clinics were then put on hold.
Carter said the current health commissioner hasn't made it clear what city services could be privatized. But she's worried that privitization will mean poorer service for city residents, who already have few places to turn. In tough fiscal times, she said, priorities have to be made.
"You've got to care about people."
© Community Renewal Society 2011