The Time to Restore Neighborhood Mental Health Treatment is Now

At a breakfast that I hosted at the Union League Club, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart explained how he oversees the nation’s largest mental health facility.

Cook County Jail is the largest single-site jail in the United States. It is conservatively estimated that one in three inmates has some form of mental illness. With a population of roughly 100,000 detainees annually and an average daily population of 9,000, that means at least 3,000 of those incarcerated on any given day suffer some degree of psychiatric disorder.

Much of the jail’s work is now devoted to treating people with significant mental illnesses. Correctional officers now receive 60 hours of advanced mental-illness treatment classes as part of their training. The Atlantic, a major national magazine, ran an article about the jail last year in which Dart was quoted as saying his officers can’t simply be guards anymore, “You have to be a doctor. You have to be a nurse. You have to be a social worker. You have to be all of these things.”

The escalating violence and number of fatalities that involve the use of deadly force by the police in the isolated and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of Chicago can be attributed in no small part to mental illness.

However, neither the Cook County Sheriff nor the Chicago Police should be the first responders when it comes to mental health. Since six neighborhood mental health treatment centers were closed in 2012, our most vulnerable citizens do not have the resources that they need. It is imperative that those facilities open again.

The Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers has been at the forefront of the fight to stop closing centers and cutting budgets. They have been working in Chicago for 25 years to maintain and expand available mental health services. The group lobbied the state legislature to pass the Illinois Community Expanded Mental Health Services Act that gives neighborhoods in Chicago the right to place on the ballot a binding referendum creating a new community mental health center funded through a nominal property tax levy of .025%.

Michael Snedeker, the Executive Director of the Coalition, who has been with the organization since 2008, helped author and pass the enabling legislation. “In Chicago, nearly every neighborhood has significant unmet mental health needs,” Snedeker said. “When these needs are ignored it affects our youth, it affects our families, and the community as a whole. Community mental health centers provide resiliency to our residents and let communities address the needs they see on their streets.”

Snedeker explained that, for decades, the City had nineteen fully-staffed public mental health centers providing services to residents regardless of their income or insurance. It was widely considered one of the best community mental health systems in the country. “Today, the mental health system is a skeleton of its former self,” said Snedeker. “There are just six centers remaining with far fewer staff, much smaller budgets, and the ability only to treat individuals with severe mental illness.”

There is every indication a large portion of the increase we see in street violence resulting in incidents of fatalities can be correlated to the closure of accessible neighborhood mental health services. Many incidents involving police shooting occur as a result of mental instability rather than a deliberate or a criminal act. Statistics support access to community mental health services contributes to a significant reduction in many domestic disturbances resulting in the necessity of police intervention and consequent incarceration, subsequent multiple court appearances and potential imprisonment.

Chicago’s Mayor and City Council hasn’t stepped up to the plate to play any genuinely significant role in the long-term mitigation of street and domestic violence, as well as the deadly force police have used in response. Establishing mentoring projects and bringing back police manpower to its 2011 level is nothing other than a band-aid measure. Restoring and even expanding the number of neighborhood mental health treatment facilities that were “consolidated” from twelve to just six locations in 2012 is a vital long-term mitigation.

The cost associated with such a proactive measure is insignificant compared with the soaring costs in blood and money of murder and mayhem at the levels this city is currently experiencing … not to mention the millions in settlements for injury and wrongful death suits paid out since the shuttering of those six neighborhood mental health facilities.

Funding by the City of Chicago and Cook County for reopening and expanding neighborhood mental health facilities and programming must be a top priority for Aldermen and Commissioners concerned with stemming the violence in their wards and districts.

The restoration and expansion of community mental health treatment is the undiscussed elephant in the room within City Council chambers and is a fundamental investment to make for assuring the future well-being of our city of neighborhoods.

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