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Mental health cuts called callous, dangerous

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For N’Dana Carter, the proposal to transfer patients from the city’s Beverly-Morgan Park Mental Health Center to the center in Roseland is emblematic of the “callousness” of the cutbacks in Mayor Emanuel’s proposed budget.

The Beverly Area Planning Agency [2] and other community groups will rally against the closing of the center on Monday, November 14 from 3 to 6 pm. at 111th and Longwood.

“There’s nowhere else in our community to receive public mental health services,” said Matt Walsh, executive director of BAPA.  Closing the center “would be devastating to the most vulnerable members of our community.”

He adds: “This is people’s lives we’re dealing with here.”

“These are mainly white, mainly middle-aged ladies” going to the clinic, said Carter, an activist (who is African American) with the Mental Health Movement organized by Southside Together Organizing for Power [3].  They will stand out sharply in the black community of Roseland, on the opposite end of the city’s Far South Side, she said.

“Roseland is very dangerous.  It’s a war zone.  They are putting people in harm’s way.  It’s like putting a sign on their back saying ‘hurt me’.”

‘Too dangerous’

“It’s too dangerous; I would be risking my life to go there,” one Beverly resident and center client told the Beverly Review [4].

“We’re victims of violence fairly often,” said Fred Friedman, a mental health advocate with Next Steps [5].  Transferring Beverly patients to Roseland “is a very stupid thing,” he said.

It typifies the lack of concern for patients’ welfare – and for a wide range of costs –involved in closing six of the city’s twelve mental health clinics, advocates say.  The city says the closings will save $3.3 million out of the city’s $6 billion budget.

Along with safety, accessibility is not a minor matter.  When the Northtown Rogers Park clinic temporarily closed for repairs earlier this year, patients were directed fo the North River clinic, far to the west.  Most never made it, a staffer told Chicago Muckrakers [6].  That’s the same trip Rogers Park clients will now have to make if they want services – permanently.

The staffer predicts that “the vast majority” of Rogers Park clients will not make the transition.

There’s also the issue of breaking the crucial patient-therapist relationship, as staffers are laid off and shuffled around.  That’s a big hurdle for any mental health patient, for whom trust is a major issue and much emotional energy is invested in building a relationship.

Tragic consequences

Sometimes it can have tragic consequences.  Dr. Wiley Rogers, a long-time city therapist and supervisor who now teaches at Olive-Harvey, recalls a client who was obsessive and paranoid.  “He was a big strong fellow, and he scared everybody.  His family was scared of him.

“He thought his medications were part of the plot against him, but because he knew me and trusted me, and because I knew him and knew what buttons to push, I could get him to take his pills.”  Then the relationship was interrupted; the man ended up barricading himself in his room with a gun, police were called, and they shot and killed him.

“You can multiply that incident by a thousand,” Rogers said.

With restricted access to mental health services, more people will end up in hospitals or in jail, with a much lower quality of life – and far greater costs to taxpayers.  Advocates predict higher rates of homelessness and suicide.

“You’ll have more people living under bridges, and more people dying under bridges,” said Rogers.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the city is cutting services, and I think it’s going to end up costing us money,” said Mark Heyerman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who chairs the Mental Health Summit [7].

He points to high rates of mental illness among returning prisoners. “They’re coming back to the city untreated, and we are helping only a tiny portion of them,” he said. To illustrate the range of impacts, Carter points out that many clinic patients are parents of CPS children, and they are far better able to suport their children’s academic efforts when they have access to services.

Private agencies cutting back

Patients covered by Medicaid are being referred to private agencies, but because state payments are delayed, “every agency is cutting services and laying off people,” and “waiting times to get services have gone up,” said Heyerman.

The city’s largest private agency has repeatedly been forced to “make heartbreaking decisions” to cut services, said Freidman, who serves on the board of directors of Thresholds [8].

And while there’s a fairly healthy network of nonprofit providers on the North Side, there are far fewer on the South Side, said Badonna Reingold, who serves on the advisory council of the city’s Woodlawn Mental Health Center.  Four of the six clinics slated for closing are on the South Side.

As far uninsured patients, the city is committing to serve the 3,000 people currently in the system.  “What happens if your are number 3,000-and-1?” asks Friedman.

Demand expected to rise

With the bad economy continuing, the city needs to prepare for more people who need help, Rogers said.

“Most people go to work, come home, pay their bills – the world works for them,” he said.  “You don’t prepare for when it doesn’t work, you can’t take care of yourself, the identity you’ve constructed starts to erode.”

Constant worry can turn into depression, he said.  “You can’t see any future, it feels like the world is at an end.

“If you have a mental health center, where we can give you a 30-minute session, reassure you, encourage you to keep going, tell you life is the experience of success and failure, it’s not all black and white, it’s a process and it goes forward” – and that can save people.

“And that can only be done by a publicly-funded entity, within the context of a society that is committed to taking care of its people,” he said.

Of the proposed clinic closings he says, “The heartlessness of it is amazing.”

Negligible savings

Especially since the savings are negligible.  The $3.3 million is less than half the TIF subsidy [9] Emanuel recently gave to suburban developers to build an upscale grocery across the street from a Dominics in the West Loop.  It’s a portion of the $15 million TIF subsidy that CME has not yet decided [10] whether or not to claim.

It’s a portion of the $20 million head tax the City Council recently voted to phase out – a tax which, at $4 a month, adds about a half-cent an hour to the wage of workers in big companies, and thus is highly unlikely to affect actual hiring decisions.

“These TIF funds should go to schools and clinics and other services we need,” said Gail Davis, a Beverly-Morgan Park client and Mental Health Movement activist.  “Community mental health centers help keep our communities safe.”

The cuts are wildly disproportionate too:  while Emanuel’s budget projects spending reductions of somewhat less than 10 percent, community services are being cut 17.7 percent – including the layoff of 200 employees working on senior services, head start, domestic violence, homeless and workforce development programs.  The public health department is being cut a whopping 34 percent.

The impact of the closings on the Latino community will be highlighted at a press conference at the Northwest Clinic, 2354 N. Milwaukee, Tuesday, November 15 a 10:30 a.m. The Mental Health Movement will hold a People’s Budget Assembly at noon on Tuesday at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington.  The City Council is slated to vote on the budget Wednesday.