May 30, 2024

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to re-open six mental health clinics her predecessor shut down, but her 2020 budget kept them closed.

Instead, Lightfoot earmarked $9.3 million to increase capacity at the five remaining city clinics and support “20 trauma-informed centers of care” in “areas of greatest need impacted by violence and poverty” on Chicago’s South and West sides.

Monday, the mayor moved to strengthen the “trauma-informed” mental health system she is trying to build, awarding $3.1 million in new grants to a dozen new providers.

They will join an existing network of 38 mental health providers expected to provide “behavioral health services” to 60,000 Chicagoans this year. That’s a whopping “1,500 percent” increase over the 3,651 people receiving mental health services from city clinics in 2019, according to the city.

By early fall, all 77 Chicago community areas will have local partners providing mental health services to adults, young people and their families — whether or not they can afford to pay, have health insurance or are U.S.citizens.

During a news conference at Access Community Health Network, 5139 S. Ashland Ave., Lightfoot argued she “inherited” a mental health system with “significant gaps, particularly in communities of color.”

“Those gaps are connected to generations of disinvestment, the lack of a clear commitment and plan to ensure that all residents have access to care and, fundamentally, the continuing stigma when it comes to addressing mental health,” the mayor said.

The only way to close that gap was to bite the bullet and “transform this broader mental health care system” by implementing a “comprehensive, grass-roots strategy that meets people where they are,” Lightfoot said.

“Our framework is not a one-size-fits-all approach, which can only reach a few thousand people. We’ve developed a holistic strategy that can serve tens of thousands of Chicagoans by integrating and investing in a full array of mental health services through this community-based care. That approach is consistent with our values of equity and neighborhood investment,” she said.

“Because we know that communities of color have the greatest gap in care, we are channeling substantial new resources into these communities of highest need, primarily on the South and West sides. … By integrating mental health services into existing, trusted community clinics, we increase access to services while linking mental health and physical healthcare, treating the whole person.”

Lightfoot noted the need for mental health services “increased exponentially during the pandemic.”

“With this expansion that we’re announcing today, we are prepared and able to serve all of those who are in need,” the mayor said.

To appease alderpersons demanding reopening of the city’s shuttered mental health clinics, Lightfoot’s 2022 budget also included expanded hours and telehealth services at five remaining city clinics; hiring a new team of psychiatric nurse practitioners and clinical therapists; and launching a new mental health program for children and adolescents.

Lightfoot also touted her efforts to use “historic levels of funding for street outreach” to bring “trauma-informed care” to neighborhoods most impacted by violence; have mental health professionals respond to even more 911 calls involving behavioral health emergencies; and expand a so-called “Narcotics Arrest Diversion” program.

Almost as important as the new grants and providers is the campaign to, as the mayor put it, “dismantle the stigma around mental health.” The cornerstone is a so-called “unspoken” campaign with stories from actual Chicagoans “bravely sharing their experiences.”

“When you look at the number of people who have stepped up to share their stories, you’re gonna see someone [who] looks just like you. You’re gonna see someone who has an experience just like yours,” Lightfoot said.

“We want people to know about this program because we don’t want people to go untreated, uncared for. We want people to get the help that they need.”

Matt Richards, deputy commissioner of behavioral health for the Chicago Department of Public Health, said the city’s mental health budget has “seen a seven-fold increase this year — to $89 million.” Turning to Lightfoot, he said, “This is our mental health mayor.”

“We expect to reach 60,000 people this year — a 15-fold increase since 2019. And maybe most importantly, we expect to serve 15,000 children under the age of 18 this year,” Richards said.

“Put very simply, our strategy is working. There is much more to be done. Believe me, we know. But we also know that it is important to notice the advances that we have made.”

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