Lack of mental health services in Chicago highlighted by panel of local elected officials

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey, Alderman Brendan Reilly, and Alderman James Cappleman briefed 45 JUF Government Affairs Committee members on Oct. 16 about the pressing issues impacting their respective districts. Common in all presentations was how the lack of mental health services directly affected the complex needs in their communities.

Fritchey explained that the County is paying $150.00 per day for every detainee at Cook County Jail, 80 percent of whom are on trial for non-violent offensives. He added that most of the current 8,300 people in custody are in need of mental health and drug counseling, and had they had access to such services earlier, many might not have committed the crimes leading to their arrest.

"The practical solution would be to decentralize the health clinics to the neighborhoods and consolidate efforts at the city and state levels," Fritchey explained. "However the Commissioner was not optimistic about the different levels of government coming together to build a better system because of long history of competition."

Representing the heart of Chicago's downtown business district, Reilly talked about the increase of homelessness in his ward as one of the most pressing challenges, and linked this growing trend to a lack of mental health services.

"People are falling out of the system and we need better partnerships between Cook County and the City of Chicago," he said.  In an attempt to understand the needs of the homeless, Reilly walks the alleys twice a week with skilled caseworkers trying to bring a wraparound approach to solving the problem.  With over half of the city mental health clinic closed, nearly 10 years ago, the alderman is encouraging the city to implement a new approach to address the mental health needs of the city's homeless community.

The 46th ward, in Uptown, is geographically the smallest of the 50 wards but yields the highest rate of people living with chronic mental illness. The seven homeless shelters, which serve the area, are usually at capacity and not equipped to respond to the host of issues -- poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to housing and medication- that contribute to the increase in the homeless population. 

"We need to first address the homeless population and then create interventions to reduce prison recidivism rates," said Cappleman, who is hoping to introduce the Housing First Model, used in other cities such as Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco, which provides permanent housing first and then addresses other needs like mental illness and substance abuse, through community support service. 

"We must make effective interventions a priority in order to get the outcomes we need," he said.

JUF's network of health and human service have a physical footprint in 10 out of 17 Cook County districts, and are located in 26 (out of 50) Chicago wards. 

"Advocating for a much stronger state and local response to the increased demand for mental health services may also be on our policy agenda this year in Springfield," said David Golder, chair of JUF's Government Affairs Committee.



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