Bringing mental health care to all 77 Chicago communities is an important step

Last week, city officials announced Chicagoans, no matter where they live, now have access to help at one of over 100 clinics and clinical programs across the city.

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Residents in every Chicago neighborhood, officials say, will now have access to publicly funded mental health services available at 177 clinics and clinical programs across the city.

Residents in every Chicago neighborhood, officials say, will now have access to publicly funded mental health services available at 177 clinics and clinical programs across the city.

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Last week, city officials shared some encouraging news: The city had reached its goal of funding clinics and other nonprofits to provide mental health services in all of Chicago’s 77 community areas.

Residents in every neighborhood, officials say, will now have access to publicly funded mental health services via 177 clinics and clinical programs across the city. In addition, primary and behavioral health care will be offered at 80 shelters for people experiencing homelessness, and there are plans to establish Department of Public Health clinics at some public libraries and at O’Hare International Airport.

The city’s latest approach to mental health care — partnering with existing clinics and programs to create a “Trauma-Informed Centers of Care” network — is a response to the loss of 12 city-run mental health clinics that were shuttered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

Network partners receive city funds to augment federal, state, county and philanthropic money; in return, they must provide mental health services regardless of insurance or immigration status or ability to pay.

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“Now that we have high-quality services in every one of our 77 neighborhoods, we can more seamlessly and quickly connect Chicagoans to mental health care, regardless of their circumstances or their address,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Thursday. “We’re not done yet, but together with our partners, we are building the mental health system that Chicago has long needed.”

Those promises haven’t stopped some community activists from pushing for the city to reopen the shuttered clinics. We’ve heard complaints about high staff turnover, low pay and substandard services at some of programs the city has partnered with.

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So we’re looking forward to seeing the results of the independent, outside evaluation that will be done by the Kennedy Forum, an organization that focuses on health care equity, to determine what’s working and what’s not, especially in communities where the city-run clinics were shuttered. The city expects preliminary information from the evaluation to be available by summer 2023.

An outside evaluation is the best way to determine if residents — especially in lower-income neighborhoods where people are more likely to be underinsured or uninsured — are getting the help they need.

Another crucial step will be identifying ways to continue funding mental health services once the city’s pandemic money runs out. Since 2019, the city’s budget for mental health services has increased substantially, from $12 million to $89 million — a good chunk of that made possible with federal pandemic aid.

City officials say there’s enough money to keep the mental health plan operating for the next four years. Beyond that, the hope is that additional money from the city, and from higher Medicaid reimbursements to community partners, will keep the network afloat.

Who’s been helped

So far, the numbers are a positive sign. More than 73,000 Chicagoans — including nearly 14,000 children — received city-funded mental health services in 2022, compared with just 3,651 residents (and no children) in 2019.

In addition, the recent debut of the city’s new 211 phone line is another good sign. Chicago had been the only major city without a 211 number for residents to call for referrals to mental health and social services, such as housing or food assistance.

Now, any resident of Chicago and Cook County can dial 211 to get help, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Residents can also reach someone by texting their ZIP code to 898211 or can do their own social service agency search by going to 211MetroChicago.org.

“If they are looking for food, they can get connected to the right pantry. But we can also ask them, do you need help with your utilities, do you need help with your rent?” said Sean Garrett, president and CEO of United Way of Metro Chicago, which launched 211 with the city, Cook County and several philanthropic organizations.

Partnerships like these are a positive step — because as a city, we must work together to help those in need.

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