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Committee OKs creating task force to study city’s mental health services

City Hall news conference by mental health advocates

Advocates backing the creating of a mental health task force held a news conference at City Hall Wednesday before the proposal was considered by a City Council committee. | Troy Closson/For the Sun-Times

Plans to establish a task force to study the state of mental health services in Chicago unanimously passed a City Council committee Wednesday to cheers from onlooking activists and mental health advocates.

The proposed Public Mental Health Clinic Service Expansion Task Force, sponsored by Ald. Sophia King (4th), would “explore re-opening of mental health clinics and identify budgetary and operational recommendations for expansion of existing facilities.

“We are all aware of the anecdotal issues related to the gaps in mental health care that face our wards,” King said prior to Tuesday’s vote by the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection.

The task force would complete a comprehensive study to point out gaps in the city’s mental health coverage. Plans call for members to include city officials, experts and residents.

Nothing will be left off the table, King said, including digging into the possibility of increasing staffing at current facilities and re-opening shuttered clinics.

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Six city-run mental health clinics — half of those then open — were shut down in 2012. Since then, advocates said, funding for mental health care has continued to decline. A report last year by the Collaborative for Community Wellness showed the city’s Southwest Side, for example, was still struggling from a lack of adequate resources.

However, Dr. Julie Morita, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, told aldermen in October she believed the closures were the “right decision.”

In a letter read at Wednesday’s hearing, Morita advocated for re-evaluating the resolution. Though she wrote that she agrees with the goal of improving mental health services, she added that she wants the task force to provide data-driven direction — without politics.

“We must not be handicapped by forcing ill-conceived, political-driven recommendations on the task force before members are even selected,” Morita wrote. “The task force should not presuppose re-opening a handful of city clinics is the answer.”

King, who went back-and-forth with the department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allison Arwady, about issues raised in the letter, said that wouldn’t be the only option examined.

Mental health advocates and activist groups including the Collaborative for Community Wellness and Southside Together Organizing for Power had gathered before Tuesday’s hearing in support of the task force resolution and reacted positively to its passage.

Diane Adams, a board member of the South Side group, recounted challenges with her own mental health in the late-1990s. Coming to Chicago, Adams said, she felt “despair” and struggled to want to stay alive.

But after connecting with a therapist, her life began to turn around, she said.

“Once I learned about my illness and my medication, I started to make goals,” Adams said. “So you can’t tell me what the power of mental health (care) can’t do. Look at me.”