Recovering the Mental Health of Illinois

By Mark Heyrman and N’Dana Carter

The Illinois legislature recently called for a special session after Governor Quinn vetoed the proposed “doomsday budget” passed by the House and Senate. This budget would have drastically cut mental health services. State legislators now have the chance to reconsider their priorities and should pass a fair budget. Last year over 700,000 people in Illinois suffered from a serious mental disorder and any cuts to these programs will harm not only those using these services, but also their family and friends.

One of those 700,000 people is Ms. Carter, long-time resident of Chicago’s south side. She excelled professionally with a career spanning over 20 years and was heavily involved in local civic organizations. She developed depression after suffering extreme setbacks. She could not take a promotion due to the interference and anxiety and eventually had to stop working. She utilizes mental health services in order to gradually regain her life back.

People with mental disorders face a variety of challenges. They are made to feel ashamed and have few places they can go to for help.

Mental health services provide a support system for people that are feeling stress, anger, and considering suicide. In a respectful environment with trained staff, people with mental disorders can deal with issues and become better equipped to navigate their lives.

Youth in these programs often need help in learning to write and how to process and deal with their everyday problems. Young people who experience trauma require assistance to achieve healthy functioning. They are vulnerable because they have not fully developed social skills. Without these resources they often end up on the streets and homeless without any alternatives.

People who are deprived of mental health services sometimes use alcohol or illegal drugs to treat their symptoms. Some even end up in the criminal justice system. Lack of well-developed social or intellectual skills translates into individuals lacking tools to avoid harmful behavior.

Mental health services in Illinois have long been underfunded. Indeed we rank among the bottom of the 50 states in per capita spending for mental health services, despite being the eighth richest state in per capita income. Our community mental health system has been stressed by the need to accommodate a 95 percent reduction in state hospital beds. Even with existing funding, we have long been turning people away from hospitals and community providers. With additional cuts under the “doomsday budget” 70 percent of the locations in Illinois will be closed to persons who need them.

As Illinois sorts out the budget crisis, it must not forget its responsibility to the public.

Too often mental health gets low priority, but legislators especially need to think about the long-term economic and social impacts of these service cuts. According to Mental Health America of Illinois, every dollar spent on mental health services saves $5 on overall healthcare costs. This would help in the state’s attempt to manage skyrocketing healthcare costs and be more efficient with taxpayer dollars. Mental health services are designed to help people recover from an illness and allow them to lead productive lives. Illinois should invest in its residents and develop the human capital needed for a healthy workforce. People, like Ms. Carter, faced dramatic events in their life and need some assistance to return to their full potential.

The need for mental health services is increasing in Illinois and across the country because of the pressures placed upon our citizens by increased unemployment, evictions and foreclosures and loss of income and assets. Now is not the time to cut those services.

Some legislators want to wait for reform in departments before deciding to fund a humane sensible budget. But the pressing needs of persons with mental illnesses will not wait. We must stabilize essential programs to protect those who are most vulnerable in the state. Cutting this vital care will only make Illinois’ economic recovery that much more elusive. Public officials must think of the long-term health of residents, and pass the revenue necessary to meet its responsibility to Ms. Carter and the hundreds of thousands of others doing all they can to win back their lives.

Heyrman is chair of the public policy committee of Mental Health America of Illinois. Carter is an activist with Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP).

Copyright (C) 2009 by the Illinois Editorial Forum.