City mental health patients will have to travel four more miles to find treatment

I'm told that Chicago used to be the "jewel of the Midwest" when it came to mental health clinics. We used to have 20 outpatient clinics, a reaction to the de-institutionalization of mental health in the sixties--taking people out of asylums and helping them live a regular life at home, with treatment. Centers used to have more than a dozen therapists, who, in addition to serving clients, used to go into schools to help children and families.

But that's not the case anymore. A handful of therapists serve the 12 clinics still left open. And if the mayor gets his way, only six centers will remain by early next year.

For patients, that means they'll be moved to a new center. How far will they have to travel? I made this Google map of which clinics will be closing and how far the new clinics will be from their old clinic for patients that have to move. Take a look:


View Closing Half of Chicago's Mental Health Centers in a larger map

On average, the new consolidated centers are an additional four miles away from the old one. I asked for public transit times on Google maps, and I came up with an average of another 35 minute bus ride. That's the distance between clinics, not their travel from home, which is likely farther. Of course, if you've used Google maps for public transit, particularly for bus travel, you know that it can often take twice as long as they say it will. And it doesn't take into account what it's like to wait for two or three buses in Chicago weather.

Earlier this year, the ceiling collapsed at Northtown Mental Health Center in Rogers Park. While it was repaired, patients were directed to North River Mental Health Center in Sauganash. Perhaps it was foreshadowing, as the same thing is happening now with the closings and consolidations. What happened during that time? I talked to a Northtown employee, who asked to remain anonymous, about that period.

"Most clients who regularly came for therapy or medication management services at Northtown never came to North River," he said. "In fact, some of us were making home visits, meeting clients at Dominick's on Howard or other public spaces in Rogers Park, and using the telephone to conduct therapy sessions."

What does that say about the future for the patients there?

"It is very clear that the vast majority of Northtown clients will not come to North River for treatment services," he said.

Another therapist at another of Chicago's mental health clinics says closing the clinics will cost the city and the county more in two ways: more medication and more ER visits. More patients will only keep their psychiatric appointments and won't come to their therapy appointments. As a result, a lot of these patients may have to be medicated more strongly because they aren't getting therapy, he said.

"As soon as someone misses a psychiatrist appointment and can't be rescheduled very quickly, they're thrown onto the emergency rooms, just to refill prescriptions," he said. "And then sometimes there are actual psych emergencies due to someone being off meds, necessitating the emergency room and the Chicago Police Department."

At the same time, the state announced it would be turning away thousands of mental health patients from state institutions. Due to budget cuts, those hospitals will now only serve people coming out of the criminal justice system, not regular patients. According to the Chicago Tribune, 10,277 people were institutionalized for some length of time last year in the state's mental hospitals. Where are those patients to go? To private and community based centers, something that the Illinois Hospital Association says isn't possible.

"They'll expand the spaces [for jail inmates], but they'll move [other] people into the community with no services, no continuity of care. We're going to end up with more of them in our county jails. It's kicking the can down the road. It's a vicious circle," said Greg Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs' Association.

Vicious circles? Don't we already have enough of those in Chicago?

© Community Renewal Society 2011

Leave a comment