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Mental health advocates fight for state funds

Wed, Jun 5, 2013

“NO CUTS NO CUTS NO CUTS!” echoed a crowd of mental health advocates in front of the James R. Thompson Center May 15.

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Fred Friedman, head organizer of Next Steps NFP, shared his personal experiences struggling with mental illness and his path towards recovery. Friedman lost his wife of 24 years, his profession of 20 years, and his home of 10 years to mental illness.

Friedman told the crowd he wears a T-shirt with the words, “I am one of THOSE people” to remind himself, “I am one of you, [and] not as sick and poor as I once was.”

Friedman said he is in recovery, yet the government provides services to only 19 percent of people with mental illness. This reach has gone down further in the past year.

“Government only provides funds to what they are willing to pay for, not to what it is necessary? And why?” Friedman asked rhetorically “because they think we are stupid and powerless!” “NO!” yelled the crowd in response. “NO!”

Friedman then quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to reinforce his point about the power each individual has.

“If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run , walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But if you can move, then no power on earth can stop you.” “Next step,” he concludes, “is to believe that if we’re not at the table, we’re on the table. No decisions about us without us.”

“Treatment works—if you can get it,” said a poster held by Suzanne Andriukaitis, executive director of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill/National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) of Greater Chicago. The rally at the Thompson Center was sponsored by the Mental Health Summit, with assistance from Mental Health America of Illinois and NAMI/Chicago. There were three main points of concern at the rally:

Providing services to more of Illinois’s most vulnerable population by enacting Medicaid expansion
restrictions placed on access to medications
restoring state funding to supportive housing for those with mental illness

Andriukaitis informed the crowd that more than half of adults who have mental illness do not receive treatment at all and only 20 percent of children are receiving treatment. She referred to six state-funded mental health centers Downstate that have been closed and six local ones funded by the City of Chicago.

Medicaid funding for prescription drugs is also a concern. Six months ago, the Illinois General Assembly enacted a four-prescription limit unless authorized by a physician. This authorization, however, requires the doctor to spend 30 minutes filling out a form, and then sending it to Springfield, all of which may take weeks.

Meryl Sosa, executive director of the Illinois Psychiatric Society, said that older people have the hardest time with Medicaid’s four-prescription limit. Some of them must choose between their medications for mental illness or heart disease, for example.

Legislators are discussing an exemption for anti-psychotics and anticonvulsant drugs – but not anti-depressants — Sosa said.

“People with chronic depression commit suicide so we want it to be much broader,” she says. “Our population is shifting. Forcing these people to make these decisions is not a good one.”
Cuts to the mental health budget can be counterproductive, Andriukaitis said, because they can lead to costly incarceration. People with untreated mental illness are twice as likely to be in jail as those who are not treated.

“People will get arrested for things they wouldn’t do if they were being treated, such as being loud. They are still loud in the County jail; maybe they fight with a guard, wind up in solitary, it’s a domino effect.”

“You can get a really nice room for $142,” she said.

The mental health advocates also want the permanent supportive housing budget fully funded at $28.5 million. The Governor’s budget had cut $4.7 million from last year’s levels.

Fully funding permanent supportive housing is necessary, advocates say, because it provides housing and case management so that people with severe mental illness can live independently in the community instead of in more costly nursing homes.

Andriukaitis told StreetWise that successive state budget cuts have taken their toll.

“They keep cutting and cutting, initially it was a little bit of fluff [that they were cutting] but at this point in time, they are cutting bone. Things are worse than they’ve ever been.”

Sarah Berz
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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