Aldermen Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Emma Mitts (37th) recently expressed full support for a task force that would look at how to better serve Chicagoans’ mental health needs and whether reopening at least some of the 6 city-run mental health clinics Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed in 2012 should be part of the discussion.  

The Chicago City Council’s Commission on Health and Environmental Protection unanimously approved the proposal during its Jan. 16 meeting. It is expected to go before the full City Council for final approval on Jan. 23. 

In 2016, the Cook County Health and Hospitals system took over the management of Roseland clinic, bringing the number down to five. Through it all, the only health clinic located anywhere near the West Side — the Lawndale Mental Health Center, 1201 S. Campbell St. — remained open.

The city closed six of its 12 clinics — four on the South Side, one on the North Side and one on the Northwest Side. At the time, the action was described as a way to better use the city’s diminishing resources in the face of a sharp drop in state funding, with the city arguing that private and non-profit providers would be able to pick up the slack.

During the course of the meeting, officials from the Chicago Department of Public Health argued that reopening the clinics was unnecessary, and that the city funds should be better spent helping residents connect to the resources that are already there. But aldermen, mental health professionals and mental health activists argued that the possibility of reopening some clinics should at least be considered.  

The resolution was originally introduced during the Dec. 12, 2018 City Council meeting by South Side Ald. Sophia King (4th). Since then, the majority of aldermen, including all West Side aldermen, have signed on as co-sponsors.

The resolution called for  Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who chairs the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection to appoint an 8-member committee that will include two aldermen from the wards where the mental health clinics were closed, two members chosen by the Department of Public Health, two members appointed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 (AFSCME Council 31) labor union, and two members appointed by the Chicago Community Mental Health Board.

The task force will contract with a third-party research firm to study which community areas the city will prioritize for reopening mental health clinics and locating funds for expanding and improving services at facilities that are open.  

As part of the study, the firm will need to hold a public hearing within 45 days after the resolution is approved. Once the study is complete, the task force will make recommendations to the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection and the Committee on Budget and Government Operations. 

Mitts, who sits on the committee, said that she has witnessed how mental health services affect residents in her ward.

“I think we need to put this taskforce together and research [the situation],” she said. “In Austin, [because of] the effect of gun violence, there are a lot of people who are traumatized. Families in our communities, older folks. We can no longer just talk and look at it, we need to respond to it.”

“I think this taskforce is a perfect opportunity to see where resources are needed, whether it be providing additional funding to existing non-profits or reopening some of the mental health clinics,” Taliaferro said.  

During the Jan. 16 meeting, Arturo Carillo, program manager at Saint Anthony Hospital’s Community Wellness Program and head of the Collaborative for Community Wellness, testified that his organization studied the effectiveness of mental health services in North Lawndale and Southwest Side neighborhoods. Carillo said that, when it comes to access to mental health care, “in both cases, cost was the prohibitive factor.”

Most recently, he said, the collaborative looked at the list of 250 providers and found that 11 of them could not be reached, 20 were “duplicate listings” and 10 simply didn’t exist. 

In a letter to Cardenas, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita wrote that she had concerns that the task force’s recommendations would be tainted by politics.

 “The taskforce analysis and recommendations must be driven by data and evidence-based solutions,” she wrote. “The taskforce should not presuppose the reopening of mental health clinics is the answer. Instead, we must analyze existing data and [identity] existing [service] gaps.”

Allison Arwardy, chief medical officer at the Chicago Department of Public Health, built on Morita’s argument, saying that, while the mental health services could be improved, she and Morita didn’t believe reopening the clinics was a way to do it.

“They were on a path to failure, largely because we lost 90 percent of state funding,” she said. “We were operating well below capacity.”

Arwardy argued that the Affordable Care Act helped expand the number of mental health care providers and made it easier for residents who previously didn’t have insurance to afford it.  

“We know there are gaps, particularly in psychiatric services,” she said. “We do not support reopening the clinics, because of some of the data, which I’d be happy to hear, on what residents actually need.”

Arwardy said that their own studies suggest that private service providers and the remaining four city-run clinics have the capacity to meet the city’s mental health needs. The trick is getting that information out there.

“We [should] work on making it clear that there are services available completely free of cost,” Arwardy said. “And we want to work on [reducing] the stigma.”

King forcefully pushed back, telling Arwardy and Morita that, just as they asked the aldermen to avoid preconceived notions, they should avoid the preconceived notion that assumes “there is no need for clinics.” 

“I think we should go into it with open eyes,” King said.

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