By Mallory Cheng
Former Mayor and possible Biden Administration cabinet member Rahm Emanuel closed six of the City’s twelve free mental health centers in April 2012. Referencing these closures as “consolidations,” Emanuel publicly stated these closings would increase the time therapists could spend with patients in private clinics and that he was not closing the clinics to cut costs and save money.
Activists and community members disagreed, as they saw the City under Emanuel continue divesting their neighborhoods of valuable, necessary assets and resources. News of the closed clinics in Auburn-Gresham, Back of the Yards, Logan Square, Morgan Park, Rogers Park, and Woodlawn spurred protests, including a ten hour sit-in outside the Mayor’s office at City Hall. Now, only five City-run community mental health centers remain open.
Eliminating the already limited public mental health resources predominantly in communities of color only created additional access barriers to mental health care. People were forced to travel far outside their own neighborhoods to receive care at another City mental health center, turned away at private clinics due to lack of insurance, or hesitant to seek care due to their immigration status.
When former Mayor Richard M. Daley was in office, 19 public mental health clinics were open, but he reduced the number down to 12 open public clinics by the end of his mayoral term.
James Swartz, a professor who teaches mental health policy at Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois Chicago, emphasized that, historically, community mental health centers served as a replacement for mostly closed psychiatric hospitals. The centers did not have the foundation, however, “to take up the slack for the closing of the psychiatric hospitals, which were themselves inadequate,” Swartz said.
“The closures came against a decades-long backdrop of historical short-comings,” Swartz said. “My guess is that a large proportion who had been receiving care in those community centers now don’t get any mental health care at all. At a community level that has a substantial impact.”
Mayor Lightfoot changes policy
Current Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced a plan to develop the Framework for Mental Health Equity to increase and expand access to mental health care. Earlier this year, Mayor Lightfoot announced the City was giving a combined $1.2 million for mental health programs to Friend Health, Healthcare Alternative Systems, and Thresholds and Trilogy Behavioral Healthcare.
In October, Lightfoot and the CDPH announced an $8 million annual investment to an additional 32 private service providers to work with the five existing City clinics to expand trauma-informed mental health services under an equity lens. This initiative includes expanding mental health care services for children, adolescents, and young adults. The City also has invested to integrate holistic healthcare services for those experiencing homelessness.
Erica Duncan, CDPH information coordinator, stated the City chose agencies based on their request for proposal responses, selecting those that “demonstrated commitments to the goals of the grant, had existing infrastructure to expand capacity, and a strong proposal,” she added.
Duncan added the Lightfoot administration focuses on “improving access to trauma-informed, publicly funded outpatient mental health services that are available to all residents regardless of ability to pay, health insurance status, or immigration status in communities of highest need.”
Mayor receives some criticism
Some aldermen have criticized Lightfoot for not fulfilling her campaign promise of re-opening the shuttered mental health centers. Duncan countered, “The City has invested millions of dollars in the five CDPH mental health clinics to hire new staff, upgrade facilities, and invest in telehealth.”
Some aldermen counter that Chicago must do more and are pushing for additional city-wide mental health services. Alderman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez of the 33rd Ward on Nov. 16 proposed an ordinance to transfer funds from the Chicago Police Department to create a 24-hour crisis hotline that would divert mental health calls from the police to a network of public sector mental health professionals.
Swartz stated closing the mental health centers has repercussions, because “with no place to get treatment the police and fire fighters become the first lines of defense.” In some of these incidents, the police have dealt with the mentally ill through force. “We need to start weaving in restoring community mental health services that include how to better respond to acute crises so it doesn’t involve nearly as often the police,” Swartz added. “There should be other options.”
Private institutions such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Chicago have partnered with the City to create a roadmap toward expanding equity and healthcare access to all Chicago residents and are providing resources to faith-based communities. The NAMI Chicago Helpline connects directly with the City’s 311 system to connect callers to mental health professionals.
NAMI Chicago and the NAMI Metro Suburban chapter aim to break down barriers to accessing mental health, especially in Black and Brown communities with high coronavirus (COVID-19) mortality rates. NAMI recently received a $500,000 grant to help faith-based communities expand mental health support in areas most affected by COVID-19.
Ericka Bailey, a certified recovery support specialist at NAMI Metro Suburban, said, “We’re trying to partner with churches and provide the mental health language to identify and support someone who is going through a mental health crisis.”
The grant allows participating faith-based communities to receive free virtual education sessions to provide the tools to faith leadership or throughout the entire congregation. Some of the partnerships operate in Auburn-Gresham, Logan Square, Rogers Park, and Woodlawn (neighborhoods where the City shuttered its mental health centers) and expand into predominantly underserved neighborhoods on the South and West Sides and in surrounding suburbs.
Communities of color in under-resourced neighborhoods experience COVID-19 effects disproportionately; often, mental health goes on the back burner to tend to immediate health concerns. These health disparities, prevalent before the pandemic, have been “exacerbated by COVID-19,” Swartz said.
Bailey has noticed “a sharp uptick in the need for mental health services” because of stress related to COVID-19, with the Chicago helpline seeing “twice the volume of calls since before the pandemic.”
Swartz notes mental health often suffers neglect because of the attached stigma, even with increased public attention and awareness. “COVID-19 has increased loneliness, increased isolation,” he said. “We’re going to see repercussions of this for years to come in terms of higher rates of depression, higher rates of anxiety. Mental illness needs more attention in terms of public awareness, in terms of funding, and to support people with mental illnesses.”
Since March, NAMI Chicago’s free helpline has received more than twice the volume of calls it received before the pandemic.
Partnering with faith organizations, NAMI will use the grant funding to build skills and increase knowledge on how to support the mental wellness of members of faith congregations. Virtual education sessions are being considered
Faith communities interested in participating in NAMI mental health efforts can submit a request online at namichicago.org/faith or call (833) 626-4244. For other NAMI services, call (312) 563-0445.
For the CDPH, log on to www.chicago.gov or call (312) 747-9884. To contact Rodriguez-Sanchez, call (773) 840-7880. Contact Swartz at email@example.com.