For this edition of West Side Lives, we’ll publishing an insightful interview with Arturo Carillo by our friends at City Bureau.
Less than a decade ago, former Gov. Pat Quinn gutted $114 million in general revenue funding for mental health in the state’s budget and closed three state-run mental health facilities. In 2012, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel pulled a similar stunt, shutting down six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics. Four of them were located on the South Side.
Around that time, Arturo Carrillo, a licensed social worker, was leading Saint Anthony Hospital’s free mental health program. He had already seen how a lack of resources on the West Side impacted a community with growing needs. But with deep fiscal cuts, that hole grew even bigger. The problem swung like a pendulum: More and more clients were walking into Saint Anthony, while the city laid off social workers and mental health professionals.
“I can’t imagine how many other people just ended up falling through the cracks after that,” says Carrillo, now a director of health initiatives and violence prevention at the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. He is also a coordinator at the Collaborative for Community Wellness (CCW), an advocacy group for mental health professionals, local organizations and residents.
Throughout the years, Carrillo has joined other public health advocates and local activists in the fight to not only reopen those clinics but create more programs, especially for Black and brown residents. That fight has now wedged itself in the middle of a critical moment, as the city faces financial hardship from the COVID-19 pandemic and public outcry to defund the Chicago Police Department.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently unveiled plans to launch a 911 co-responder model where police and mental health workers would answer certain calls as a part of the city’s 2021 budget proposal. It’s a model that Carrillo and other leaders at CCW don’t support.
“Having a police vehicle and a police officer show up to the scene immediately escalates a situation,” he explains.
City Bureau spoke to Carrillo about the decade-long battle for more city-run mental health clinics and why he believes investing in mental health may just be the plan to save the city’s people. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Saint Anthony Hospital’s Community Wellness Programs offer free mental health services to Chicago’s West and Southwest Side. What are the greatest mental health needs in those areas?
The common denominator in Black and brown communities on the West and Southwest side is exposure to trauma, poverty and life circumstances that lead from one crisis to another without actually receiving support when people need it.
At Saint Anthony with those 12 staff, it felt like we were plugging an enormous hole with our thumb. It was great to be there and build the program at Saint Anthony—and develop clinicians who could serve in these communities. But ultimately, the problem was bigger than what any one organization could do to address.
When former Mayor Emanuel closed six of 12 city-run mental health clinics in 2012, what was the short-term and long-term impact?
Short-term effects were—there were lives lost. People died as a result of that decision. Many of the people who needed that care lost it, and in some cases ended up losing their lives. The other short-term effect was that a lot of people fell through the cracks. There was no real systematic way of tracking where people were being referred to or how those people were going to receive services.
What we’re seeing with the long-term consequences are that when you do not have a proper investment in the public infrastructure necessary to address this enormous situation and you rely exclusively on the private sector, including the nonprofits, you end up having this messy patchwork of incomplete services.
Why is it important to reopen these clinics?
Like the county health system, when the nonprofits fail, when the health clinics fail to provide people access to care, you have a publicly-funded institution that is there and baked into the costs of the city to ensure that no one falls through the safety net. Public mental health clinics give people access to care in areas of the city that they can walk to and get support.
You’ve shown support for Ald. Rossanna Rodriguez-Sanchez’s (33rd) “Treatment Not Trauma” proposed order. It plans to expand mental health services in Chicago, including teams of medical and mental health providers who are available 24-hours a day to respond to crises and the number of city-run mental health clinics. What is it about her plan that stands out to you?
The moment the police show up to a situation, that situation escalates immediately. Having a plain-clothed social worker who is showing up in an ambulance or in an unmarked van to help de-escalate the situation would lead to an incredibly different outcome in a lot of the crises that end with Black men and women losing their lives. On the other hand, police response to a mental health crisis also leads to an enormous amount of lawsuits and settlements. That money would be better invested in these preventative services, mental health clinics and a non-police emergency response system.
Rodriguez-Sanchez’s ordinance wants to build up the city’s mental health clinics and create community advisory councils at each one. Many mental health clinics are currently run by nonprofit organizations and they are not accountable to the general public. Any investment that goes to a nonprofit organization, you do not, as a general public, have the opportunity to actually examine, provide input and feedback to shape the programming. On the other hand, a public mental health clinic with a community advisory council would allow for more oversight, transparency and accountability where we can cut down on barriers that community members may face in accessing care. It also means increased cultural competency, programming and triaging beyond local government services.
That sort of input improves the quality of those public mental health clinics. It also maintains the accountability necessary to ensure that those clinics are able to do the types of follow-up care that are essential to respond to community needs.
Is this the first time you’ve seen a group of city councilmen unite and create this type of proposal?
Yes, because I think this proposal is worthwhile. It’s really sketching out the alternative system that is necessary and smartly bakes it into the public infrastructure of the city. The aldermen are saying what we need is to actually create a response system for mental health crises, just like the fire department that is responding to the city’s medical and fire needs.
Mental health requires the same sort of investment. What they’re really saying is that mental health has to be a public initiative that’s publicly funded and publicly run. It goes beyond just reopening mental health clinics.
The need for mental health services continues to grow louder, especially as we’re talking about the movement to ‘Defund CPD’. If we invested in mental health workers like we have in police, what would the outcome be?
If we had more positions created just like we’re proposing in Ald. Rodriguez-Sanchez’s council order for public employees, in this case social workers would be employed in the way the police officers are by having a great salary and good benefits. You’re going to transfer positions in a way that can create more opportunities for social workers. They can have—just like police officers—their livelihood respected in the way that they’re paid well and fairly.
It really is about creating alternative systems that can be reparative and restorative while providing opportunities for engagement by people who are of the community to respond to crises in the community.
This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Bronzeville. For more stories on the 2021 budget, visit citybureau.org/budget.