The City of Chicago is teaming up with several mental health providers to launch a community training program to help residents recognize symptoms of mental illness.

The program will eventually be citywide, but for now, it’s still in a pilot phase. The city decided to try it out in the 10th, 11th and 15th Chicago Police districts, which include Austin, North Lawndale, and West and East Garfield Parks.

The providers who will facilitate the program, which is officially known as the West Side Outreach Project, hope to teach residents how to recognize symptoms of mental illnesses, so that they can get help; to remove stigma around mental illnesses, so that people would approach it like a disease that can be treated, rather than something shameful; and to help police officers better respond to conflict in cases where mental illness might be an issue.

In the past, community activists and non-profit organizations have raised alarms about access to healthcare, including mental health treatment, on the West Side. The matter took on new urgency after the December 2015 police shooting of Quintonio LeGrier, who was reportedly struggling with mental health issues and was shot by a police officer who wasn’t trained to deal with such situations.

At that point, CPD already offered Crisis Intervention Team training, which teaches officers how do deescalate volatile situations and recognize signs of mental illnesses. But the training was voluntary, so only a relatively small portion of the officers actually took it. Since LeGrier’s death, the city has been training more officers, but it’s still very much a work in progress.

At the same time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel created the Citywide Mental Health Response Steering committee. Along with expanding CIT training, the committee has been looking for ways to increase access to social and mental health services, and to educate the public about mental illnesses. 

The city developed the West Side Outreach Program to provide free mental health training to schools, community organization and houses of worship. The training sessions are tailored to the audience, with medical professionals from various health providers handling the teaching. Those organizations include Lurie Children’s Hospital, Mt. Sinai Hospital, Thresholds and National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago. 

According to Alexa James, the executive director at NAMI Chicago, the West Side was chosen for the pliot program because it is already “rich in resources,” so there is a foundation to build on.

The program officially kicked off on Jan. 12, with the first training session held at Better Boys Foundation Family Services, 1512 S. Pulaski. It was taught by James, and it went over what the mental illnesses are, what their symptoms are, the causes of mental illnesses and trauma, and the science behind mental health treatments.

The session was often interactive in style, with James asking attendees on their thoughts on the topics and generally inviting them to speak up if they felt like it. Attendees could pick up palm-sized brochures listing names and phone numbers of West Side mental health and substance abuse treatment resources.

During a press conference on Jan. 12, Better Boys Foundation CEO Rufus Williams said that the training would go a long way toward addressing long-running issues on the West Side.

“People in Austin, North Lawndale, East [and] West Garfield Park faced poverty abuse,” he said. “All those issues led to mental health challenges. We look forward to a great [training] session, because we know it’s a matter of life and death.”

Williams also said that stigma is strong in the black community, because acknowledging mental health issues was seen as showing weakness, and it’s something that has to be overcome.

Dr. Julie Morita, the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said that key was to change how people perceive mental illness.

“I think it’s very important for us to recognize that mental illness and substance abuse disorders are illnesses, like asthma and diabetes,” she said.

Morita also said that the program is just one of the things the city is doing to increase awareness and reduce stigma. Chicago Park District and Chicago Public Library employees will get similar training further down the line, and the city is already working with Chicago Public Schools to train educators and other school employees.

15th District Commander Dwayne Betts said that the program would improve how officers, firefighters and EMT technicians and other first-responders handle mental health issues. If residents know what to look for, they would be better equipped to tell emergency dispatchers what’s going on, Betts said.

The pilot program will run for six months, after which point the organizations involved will review the results of the program and see whether they would need to do anything differently before expanding the program to the rest of Chicago.

West Side organizations can sign up to receive the training by calling (312) 563-0445.