Rauner’s mental health cuts hit firefighter’s family hard

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The date Mario Durham’s father died — June 7, 2007 — rolls off the son’s tongue instantly, as if it were Durham’s own birthday.

The date is significant, not only because the Chicago firefighter clearly misses his dad, but because of a promise the dying elder Durham asked of his son: Take care of your brother.

Durham’s brother, Robert Cook, is schizophrenic and has bipolar disorder. But Durham says keeping that promise may be almost impossible if Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget cuts come to pass.

“If he’s out of his program, it’s going to be the end of him because he’s not mentally stable enough to make sure he takes care of himself,” Durham, 42, said, as his brother sat nearby last week at a Starbucks in Uptown, where his brother currently lives.

Each year, it’s a familiar refrain — mental health agencies that depend on state funds claim cutbacks will devastate already underfunded programs. But this year, Gov. Bruce Rauner is calling for a massive $6.7 billion cut to the state’s budget, including an $82 million cut in mental-health services. Last month, when Rauner unveiled his budget plan, he said the state would finally be living within its means.

“It’s like cutting someone off from chemotherapy when they have cancer,” said Heather O’Donnell, vice president of public policy for Thresholds, a community based mental health services agency with some 7,000 clients in Cook, McHenry and Kankakee counties. “If someone has schizophrenia, the [illness] doesn’t go away because you terminate the treatment. If you don’t provide treatment, the schizophrenia is exacerbated and you can become psychotic and end up in the hospital.”

Between 2009 and 2011, the state slashed $113 million from the community mental health budget, O’Donnell said. As a result, visits to the emergency rooms at hospitals across the state jumped 19 percent among the mentally ill over the last three years, O’Donnell said.

In the end, O’Donnell said, the cuts are likely to prove more costly for taxpayers. One year of community-based mental health treatment costs about $10,000 compared with about $6,000 for one typical ER visit that includes hospitalization, O’Donnell said.

Rauner’s office this week declined to comment on the details of Cook’s case. But a spokesman for the Governor said in an emailed statement that the cuts were a necessary corrective to years of “bad management and sweetheart deals” in state government.

“Illinois is now facing a $6 billion deficit and Governor Rauner has had to make some difficult decisions to put Illinois back on a fiscally-responsible path,” the statement said.

Not much has worked for Robert Cook, 37, who has moved from residential treatment centers to low-income housing to life on the streets across the city — “winging it,” his brother said

But a highly structured living arrangement, with a curfew and someone watching to make sure he takes his medicine, is his best bet, Durham says.

Cook wants to live with his brother, whose home is on the South Side. Durham says he loves his brother, but doesn’t want the houseguest.

“The thing is, last time he moved back in with me, the first day he came back, he was gone for three to four days, with no medications,” Durham said. “So I told him, ‘I think it’s best for you to go back.’”

But out on the street, Cook finds himself endlessly harassed — people calling him crazy, nuts or worse.

“I’ve been going through rough times all my life,” Cook said. “There have been times when I’ve tried to commit suicide because I got tired of living — because of being picked on on the streets.”

For now, he’s living in low-rent housing in Uptown. His brother is urging him to get back into a treatment center, where his care could be properly managed.

Cook says he’s stopped listening to the hurtful words, and now feels his outlook is better.

But for how long, wonders his brother, reflecting on the promise he made to their dying father.

“Through the years, he’s definitely getting worse mentally,” Durham said. “I just want to make sure he’s going to be OK if I’m not around.”

Robert Cook in his room at the Lorali Hotel in the North Side Uptown neighborhood Friday, March 13, 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

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