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Chicago’s new advocates for the mentally ill

Wed, Mar 21, 2012

Jim LoBianco

Supportive funding for the mentally ill, a perennial favorite of the government chopping block, continues to be hacked away. Governor Quinn has already committed to shut down two mental institutions without, critics say, a clear plan for continuing patient services. The word out of Springfield for 2013 is that things will only get worse.

The City of Chicago is closing six of its 12 mental health clinics, which advocates argue will negatively impact close to 3,000 Chicagoans in need of treatment and support. Piled on top of this bad news is the fact that most mental health programs have to stop serving non-Medicaid clients. Those without Medicaid are often the most severely mentally ill and have therefore been left totally abandoned by the health care system.

Unfortunately, the system in Illinois that has become the repository for too many of those left without services is the Cook County Jail. For years it has been rumored that the jail is the single largest repository of the mentally ill in the State. Last week the credence of this assertion was given a big boost when it was repeated by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

As quoted by the Chicago News Cooperative, Sheriff Dart said that the system “is so screwed up that I’ve become the largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois.” The reality is that, rather than caring for the mentally ill in appropriate health care facilities, Illinois has essentially taken to criminalizing its mentally ill and warehousing them in the jail.

To combat this injustice, Sheriff Dart is exploring his ability to sue the State in the hope that the courts can mandate Illinois to provide the just and humane treatment for the mentally ill that it has so pointedly abandoned. Tom Dart’s bold statements are an encouraging sign for the mentally ill and their advocates.

Another bright light for Chicagoans struggling with mental illness is the appointment of Mark Ishaug as Executive Director of Thresholds. Founded in 1959, Thresholds is the oldest and largest provider of mental health services in Illinois. Most recently Mark served as President and CEO of AIDS United in Washington, D.C.

Mark previously served as the President and CEO of AIDS Foundation of Chicago, where he grew the agency significantly, doubling its budget and staff, as well as increasing programs and housing options for those with HIV and AIDS. Given Mark’s experience and skill in advocating for the often ignored HIV community, he is an excellent choice to lead Thresholds through these troubled times. I hope he is as successful in reclaiming funding for the mentally ill as he was in securing it for those with HIV and AIDS.

It is nice to see a glimmer of hope in the midst of such a harsh reality. In order to help bring our hope to fruition I recommend that Chicagoans do what they can to support the advocacy and leadership of both Tom Dart and Mark Ishaug.

By Jim LoBianco
StreetWise Executive Director

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and suggestions. You are welcome to contact me at either jlobianco@streetwise.org or (773) 334-6600 (ext. 22).

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