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Pritzker signs laws designed to make better care for the mentally ill the norm: ‘Mental health care is health care’

The governor signed two pieces of legislation Wednesday aimed at reaching people who may need mental health support ”no matter where they live, no matter their socio-economic status.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs bills to expand access to mental health care in Illinois at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs bills to expand access to mental health care in Illinois at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday signed two pieces of legislation designed to help provide more humane and compassionate mental health service in Illinois, one of which a state Senate sponsor reluctantly described as a “landmark.”

“It’s landmark, but you kind of wish it wasn’t landmark because you wish this was the norm,” said state Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago. “So, hopefully, moving forward that’s what we see as the norm.”

Pritzker said he was signing the two bills in hopes of putting mental illness on par with any other health issue.

“In the state of Illinois, mental health care should not, and cannot, be treated as a supplementary, or optional service — it’s medically necessary, it’s life-saving, and it can help address the systemic trauma that has held many communities back for far too long,” Pritzker said at the Wednesday afternoon bill signing.

“Mental health care is health care. That’s a vital component of a truly equitable and compassionate health system, something that Illinois is now one step closer to building.”

Gov. J B Pritzker responds to questions during a bill signing at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Gov. J B Pritzker responds to questions during a bill signing at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

One of the bills the governor signed was the Community Emergency Services and Support Act, also known as the Stephon Edwards Watts Act.

Stephon Watts was 15 years old in 2012 when Calumet City police came to his home after his parents called 911. The boy, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, was in the basement.

According to news reports at the time, the 15-year-old had a knife. Police said he struck one of the officers in the forearm, they shot him, and the boy died. Stephon’s family has said the knife he had was a butter knife.

The new law that’s named for him requires all municipalities to coordinate 911 services through the newly established three-digit 988 hotline, which will connect people to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Call center operators for 911 will be required to coordinate with a mobile mental and behavioral health services that will be established by the Illinois Department of Human Service’s Division of Mental Health.

The goal of that legislation is to avoid “more stories like Stephon Watts,” Peters said.

“People should — when they’re going through a mental health, or behavioral, traumatic event — know that they’re going to be treated with humanity and safety and compassion,” said Peters, a sponsor of the legislation.

State Sen. Robert Peters speaks about the importance two bills expanding access to mental health care in Illinois at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
State Sen. Robert Peters speaks about the importance two bills expanding access to mental health care in Illinois at the Thompson Center on Wednesday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Candace Coleman, a community organizer at Access Living, said in the heat of an emergency, people with mental and behavioral health disabilities can “easily be misunderstood,” leading to tragic situations such as police killings, unnecessary lockups and more.

Directing 911 to refer calls seeking mental or behavioral health support to the hotline instead of police will help those in the midst of a crisis “get the appropriate care they need,” Coleman said.

The 988 hotline is a national, three-digit number created by a bipartisan bill signed into federal law last year. The new number will connect callers experiencing a mental health emergency to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The Illinois Human Services Department is partnering with the six existing suicide lifeline call centers in the state as well as other advocates and stakeholders to make sure the transition to the new federal hotline in July 2022 goes smoothly, according to a news release from the human services department.

The state law goes into effect next January.

The other new law, which goes into effect in January 2023, makes Illinois the third state to require insurance to cover the treatment of substance use and mental, emotional or nervous disorders.

State Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, said the legislation will increase access to mental health care at a time when “the need is at its greatest.”

“Too often, we’ve seen that when people try to access treatment, they are wrongfully denied care because their health plan will not tell them it is medically necessary in order for them to receive that care,” Fine said. “This legislation will stop that and we will make sure that we head off this disease at an earlier time than waiting until we are in crisis.”