CONVERTED: A building at 4133 W. Madison St., which will be turned into the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center after renovations. Donald Dew, president and CEO of Habilitative Systems, hopes the center opens by sometime in February. | Google Earth

When it opens later this year, the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center will provide mental health services and help address trauma that hasn’t been properly treated. They are also looking to help address opioid addiction.

As the doctors involved in the effort noted, while the news tends to focus on how opioid addiction affects suburban communities, in the Chicago area, West Side communities are the ones that have been hardest hit.

The center, which will be located at 4133 W. Madison St., in West Garfield Park, is the result of a partnership between West Garfield Park-based Habilitative Systems, East Garfield Park-based Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center and the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. 

But the organizations behind the center aren’t waiting for it to open to mobilize against the opiod crisis. Last year, they sponsored a mobile triage unit to respond to emergencies 24/7 and on Dec. 23, they held a community meeting to get the word out about the center and the issues it will address, as well as to help West Side community organizations get resources to help them address those issues on their own.

Donald Dew, president and CEO of Habilitative Systems, said that the building that will house the center is still being renovated. He said he’s hoping the center opens in February.  

During the Dec. 23 meeting, Rashad Saafir, the president and CEO of Bobby E. Wright, said that the two organizations decided to team up because the issues were too large for any one organization to tackle alone. And while it would take a while for the center to open, they already started to operate a “mobile triage,” where professionals are dispatched to handle potentially dangerous situations before they can escalate.

“[We thought] what can we do to mitigate some of the effects when people are exposed to violence, when people are acting out and when they don’t get their medication?” Saafir said. “So we decided to put boots on ground.”

He recalled a moment when a young man he knew got shot. His organization put together a “crisis team,” which went straight to the hospital to help his family.

“We brought them food,” Saafir said. “We sat and counseled with the family. We listened to their grief and responded to pain they were experiencing.”

The team also worked to ensure that the situation would not lead to more violence and more trauma.

“The [young man’s] mom said she was concerned that there was a cousin to the young man who was shot and she thought he was going to retaliate,”Saafir recalled. “So we developed the plan about how were going to manage [the cousin].We started intervening with this young man to get him grounded in the here and now.”

The crisis team urged the cousin to focus on his most pressing problem at that moment — that he had a relative in surgery, fighting for his life. That got through to him, and he backed down. 

“He wasn’t thinking on that level, because he was [overwhelmed] with the emotion of anger,” Saafir said. “We were able to prevent another death due to retaliation. That’s how the crisis [team] works.”

The team is made up of eight experienced clinicians and is on call 24/7. The flier distributed at the Dec. 23 meeting urged any West Side resident to contact the team if they or their friends or loved ones are dealing with trauma, violence, drug addiction, loss and depression. The mobile triage can be contacted by calling (773) 745-2620.

At the same time, Saafir and Dew wanted to do something to bring even more attention to the issues of mental health and opioid addiction ahead of the holiday season. 

“Suicides spike during the holidays,” Saafir said. “Overdoses spike during the holidays. For many of our residents, it is the time of incredible stress, and we want to reduce the impact of our dearly, dearly beloved citizens.”

To that end, they teamed up with the Westside Black Elected Officials committee to hold a “call to action” at Austin’s Hartgrove Hospital, located at 5730 W. Roosevelt Road, which specializes in treating mental health issues that result from physical and psychological causes.

“We thought it was important to launch as much [discussion] as possible about mental health stigma in our community, about opiate abuse,” Dew said at the start of the meeting. “We need to push this agenda hard.”

During the Dec. 23 meeting, state Rep. Camille Lilly (78th) emphasized the importance of addressing mental health and addiction issues early, before they lead to something worse.

“It is so important that we understand that prevention is half of the success,” she said. “We don’t do enough of that.”

Lilly said that she and other West Side elected officials fully supported the center. At the meeting, state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th) praised Dew and Saafir for understanding the severity of the issues and pushing for solutions. 

“I can just think of how, regardless of how much money you have, regardless of what things are happening, if you’re not happy, you have problems,” he said. “While we’re fighting in our communities for businesses, for our education, none of that would be possible [to achieve] if we don’t have a strong community with strong mental health. Because you are not able to fight if you don’t have God’s gift of strong mental health.”

Ford noted that the issues of opioid abuse and mental health are linked.

“We have to give people relief they need, so they don’t have to resort to drugs, so they don’t have to be depressed, so our community is free of violence,” he said. “Because hurt people hurt people.”

The meeting also featured two speakers — Randy Salder, president of Chicago chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers and Iliana Espinosa, the Outreach Specialist at Chicago Recovery Alliance. 

Salder said that there is considerable stigma in the black community around not just getting help for mental health issues, but acknowledging that those issues exist at all. Much of it, he said, had to do with the trauma suffered from slavery, segregation and racism. 

The fact that there were many cases where African-American patients were used for medical experiments without their knowledge doesn’t help, either, he added.

“These messages get passed down generation after generation,” Salder said. “We need to address it so young people coming behind us don’t carry those forward.”

Salder said that, while psychotropic medication has its place, he felt that, too often, it was used when other, non-medical options would work better. 

“Many of our young people are placed on psychotropic medications not because it’s the best way [to treat them], but because [the doctors] are lazy,” he said. 

Espinosa talked about her organization’s use of Nalaxone to reverse drug overdoses. She noted that Chicago Recovery Alliance’s priority is “harm reduction.” If an addict doesn’t want to try to quit, the organization will at least make sure the addict uses drugs as safely as possible, she said.

Espinosa walked through the process of injecting Nalaxone. Because it takes away the high, she explained, the person getting injected should be warned beforehand. After the injection, the person doing the injecting should wait two minutes to see if there are any effects. A second injection may be required. 

“It depends on a person, it depends on their tolerance,” Espinosa said. 

Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer (2nd) urged everyone in attendance to get the word out about the center. 

“We need the support of each and every one of you.” he said. “Because if we don’t support it, it goes away. And not only do I ask you to support it, but I want you to start [promoting] it right now.”

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