Chicago is making strides to improve mental health care

Newly invested dollars have funded teams of mental health professionals to respond to 911 calls, helped to launch programs to divert Chicagoans with serious mental illness or addiction away from the criminal justice system and continued investment in mental health clinics.

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Chicago Department of Public Health officials want to address mental health access.

Chicago is addressing mental health access with a month dedicated to healing and hope, Department of Public Health officials write.

Matt Rourke/AP Photos

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it has never been more important than at this moment. It is clear from health care professionals that our nation is facing a mental health crisis of major proportions. Not only do we hear about it in news broadcasts and on social media, but among family and friends.

And now, we must not just give voice to a topic that too often goes unspoken. We must act and address the crisis.

Over the past few years, people who never thought they would experience mental health struggles have faced depression, stress, anxiety, and grief. And people already living with serious mental illnesses have faced new challenges.

What is especially frightening are the mental and behavioral health challenges faced by our young people. In 2021, more than a third — 37% — of U.S. high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

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There is no question that the increasing prevalence of mental and behavioral health challenges is related to the many adjustments we faced during the pandemic. The highly polarized public square and the spread of misinformation on social media have likewise contributed.

However, the signals of a crisis were flashing well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indicators like death by suicide, overdosing on substances, and alcohol misuse have all been on the rise.

Mid-May, we will share an update with all Chicagoans about the enormous progress the city has made with community partners and the extensive initiatives we are adding to address the full array of mental health challenges we face. We will highlight the programs, resources and initiatives that are available to all residents in every corner of the City. We want to de-stigmatize the notion that only a few struggle with mental health issues.

Over the past few years, Chicago has invested more in mental health than ever before. In 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched the Framework for Mental Health Equity, which tripled the Chicago Department of Public Health’s mental health budget to create a city-wide network of care, by funding community providers and filling gaps in service. We are currently on track to serve more than 50,000 residents with mental health needs this year, up from fewer than 4,000 in 2019 — regardless of income, insurance status, immigration status or ability to pay.

Just one example of our partnerships’ profound impact: A Humboldt Park neighbor sought food assistance through Lakeview Pantry, where she also spent time with a social services care coordinator after sharing that her anxiety had increased since the start of the pandemic. The care coordinator helped connect the client to a therapist on location, and even scheduled an initial therapy appointment for her later on that week.

The week after getting connected with the therapist, the client found out her partner was terminally ill. We were able to provide mental health support for her through the duration of her partner’s treatment and ultimately, their passing within six months. She continues to see the therapist, who is within walking distance of her home. 

The extra dollars that we have invested since 2019, seven times more than previously budgeted, have significantly enhanced mental health access and treatment. That money has gone toward funding 38 clinics in 35 community areas, with plans to expand to all 77 community areas this year.

But a systemic approach is about far more than funding brick-and-mortar locations. Those newly invested dollars have also funded teams of mental health professionals to respond to 911 calls through the Crisis Assistance and Response Engagement, or CARE, pilot program. They have helped to launch programs to divert Chicagoans with serious mental illness or addiction away from the criminal justice system and into a supportive network where they can receive ongoing care. Those dollars have also meant continued investment in both CDPH-run mental health clinics and citywide coordination among a vast array of resources. 

Mental health is a challenge that cannot be met with a one-size-fits-all solution. Mental health programs are only as strong as the people working to lift the health of our great city. We will continue to invest heavily in the human resources necessary to increase access and treatment options for all residents who need them.

Please stay tuned for a month dedicated to healing, hope and your well-being, with resources being rolled out to provide decades of better health for all. 

Allison Arwady, MD, is Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. Wilnise Jasmin, MD, is Medical Director of Behavioral Health at CDPH. Geraldine Luna, MD, is Medical Director COVID-19 Response Bureau at CDPH. Erica E. Taylor, MD, is Medical Director Congregate Settings at CDPH.

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