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Hundreds weigh in on Chicago’s mental health crisis as city task force examines solutions

More than half of the city’s mental health clinics shut down in 2012, leaving a void in parts of the city most susceptible to trauma, a report said last year.

Chicago mental health clinc
Patients and advocates occupying the Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic, protested outside the occupied clinic that faced city foreclosure, Friday, April 13, 2012.
John H. White/Sun-Times

Kyana Butler was five months pregnant with her daughter when her fiance was shot.

During the three months that Butler’s fiance spent in the hospital, and in the months after giving birth, Butler says she and her fiance didn’t have any mental health services available to them — despite Butler, now 24, dealing with postpartum depression and her fiance with post-traumatic stress disorder.

That’s one example, the Woodlawn resident says, of what thousands of Chicagoans have faced since more than half the city’s public health clinics shut down seven years ago.

For all that time, residents have demanded better care but instead have experienced infrequent and worsening mental health treatment after services weren’t restored.

For the first time, though, their pleas might be heard. More than 200 people turned out Thursday evening at Malcolm X College on the Near West Side for the first public health forum that has convened since the City Council created a task force in January to study the city’s lacking mental health services.

Chicago mental health forum
Hundreds listen to speakers share personal anecdotes of mental illness at a forum Thursday, June 13, at Malcolm X College.
Nader Issa

The forum was the first step in the process of taking input and recommendations from the community and generating a report to present to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s new administration. Lightfoot campaigned on the promise to repair the city’s broken mental health system, but her exact plans have remained unclear.

Dr. Leticia Villarreal Sosa, a clinical social worker and professor of social work at Dominican University, said at Thursday’s forum, “It has been difficult to account for what has happened to those folks who were receiving services at clinics that were closed, and what has happened to people who are continuing to need access to services.”

One of the primary focuses of the task force, proposed and chaired by Ald. Sophia King (4th), is to take a hard look at the possibility of reopening the mental health clinics closed under the leadership of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Seven of the city-run clinics — half of those open at the time — were shut down in 2012 due to budget cuts, according to the city. The closures led to extensive public outcry in the years since.

Advocates have said funding for mental health care has continued to decline, while a report last year by the Collaborative for Community Wellness showed the city’s Southwest Side, for one, was still struggling from a lack of adequate resources. Thousands of residents would use mental health services if they had better access, the report said.

Robert Steward, a public clinical therapist since 2003, works at the city-run mental health clinic in Englewood. Though the clinic doesn’t have a co-pay and doesn’t turn anyone away regardless of insurance or type of mental illness, Steward said the city’s mentally ill residents desperately need more help.

“There is no shortage of need for mental health services,” Steward told those gathered Thursday. “We’re getting clients through the door every day, although the city doesn’t do much to promote our services ... Chicago must invest more in our system of public mental health clinics.”