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Something Stinks: Mental Illness & the CTA

Wed, Apr 27, 2011

Jim LoBianco

This week’s StreetWise looks at the CTA outreach program conducted by Thresholds, a non-profit agency dedicated
to serving the mentally ill. The agency’s mission statement says that, “Thresholds assists and inspires people with severe mental illnesses to reclaim their lives by providing the supports, skills and the respectful encouragement that they need to achieve hopeful and successful futures.” The problem is that the services provided by Thresholds are in danger because of State budget cuts.

One place where you can see the impact of budget cuts is the CTA. If you are a commuter in Chicago it is quite likely
that you have boarded a CTA train and been confronted by the strong aroma of body odor, urine, or worse. Although it is not always the case, these odors are often connected to a person who is most likely
homeless. However, the underlying cause of the odor itself isn’t just a lack of cleanliness, rather, it is very likely an indicator of a presenting mental illness.

Those in the field of mental health will tell you that it is not uncommon for individuals suffering from schizophrenia, paranoia, and other anti-social disorders to use a distasteful personal odor as a barrier against other people. So, those offensive smells are not just an example of some person’s wanton disregard for civility. Instead, it is safe to say that the smells are directly connected to the poor state of mental health funding in Illinois.

In his HUFFPOST article from March 21, 2011, Bipartisan Budget Cut Fantasies: Illinois Mental Health Care Decline Is No Fairy Tale, David Ormsby reports that, “Since fiscal year 2009, Illinois has shed $113.7 million from community mental health care.” This reduction in the mental health budget has placed Illinois among the top 10 states for slashing mental health funding, (having cut 15.1% from Illinois’ mental health service budgets since fiscal year 2009). Read Mr. Ormsby’s article for more data on Governor Quinn’s proposed cuts to the State’s 2011
mental health budget.

What does this mean for Thresholds?
It means that the agency’s ability to try and get the mentally ill off of the CTA and into the kind of treatment that will lead to improved mental and physical health is in peril.

What does it mean for you and me?
It means that the likelihood of encountering more nose-turning smells during our daily commute is going to increase.

Society is connected in a multitude of subtle ways; mental health funding and the CTA stink is just one example. In my opinion, it is better to expend energy by trying to preserve critical mental health funding than it is harassing the CTA to clean their cars more often. All the bleach in the world will not cure mental illness; it will only mask the symptoms.

Jim LoBianco
StreetWise Executive Director

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