Connecting the dollars for mental health in Illinois
Turning Point Behavioral Health Care Center CEO Ann Fisher Raney welcomes people Friday to a town hall meeting on mental health care services at the Skokie Public Library. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 15, 2013 9:54AM
What does fixing a broken pension system have to do with caring for the mentally ill?
In Illinois, everything.
Turning Point Behavioral Health Care Center of Skokie held its 12th annual town hall meeting Friday, a 90-minute panel discussion on formidable challenges in caring for people with mental illness.
Panelists at the forum, held at the Skokie Public Library, included local and state legislators as well as those who work on behalf of the mentally ill and who have seen the impact the state’s fiscal crisis has had on taking care of those in need.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, Illinois ranks fourth in the country in making aggressive cuts among 29 states that reduced their mental health budget over several years. The state has cut more than $187 million or more than 31 percent from that budget.
State Rep. Lou Lang, D-16th, noted that mental health funding was in even worse shape when he began in Springfield years ago.
“When I first started, the issue of mental health was sort of a stepchild, an orphan, nobody was paying a lot of attention to it and funding was dismal,” Lang said.
The state began to better fund mental health services, although never to the levels they should, Lang said, and in recent years the state economy has taken its toll.
“As you all know, we don’t have enough money to pay our bills,” Lang said. “As you all know, we have a huge pension (problem).”
To better fund mental health services, fixing the state economy, which Lang calls “a daunting task,” is a necessity.
Lang wasn’t the only panelist to raise the issue of the state’s economic crisis and enormous pension debt. Whether pension reform can happen soon ties into funding for mental health services and other necessities, panelists said.
If the state doesn’t solve the pension problem, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen said, there will be less money for everything else, including mental health.
But State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-9th, noted the dichotomy of the times when it comes to the state of mental health services. It’s true that mental health providers face extreme challenges because of funding issues, he said, but it’s also simultaneously true that there are exciting opportunities.
The Affordable Health Care Act — more commonly known as “Obamacare” — will provide more people with the chance to get care they need.
And some providers, such as Turning Point, have found innovative ways to provide care for those in need. Its “Living Room” community-based program, for example, offers important and successful care to mental health patients as a sometimes replacement to emergency room visits. Other facilities are looking carefully at the program.
The stigma of mental health continues to be a challenge that society must address, panelists said.
Biss acknowledged that the state treats certain types of expenditures as automatic and others as discretionary.
“Mental health has been discretionary,” he said.
And yet mental health issues touch so many people’s lives — more than is often acknowledged.
“Mental health care touches everybody,” Van Dusen said. “It’s one of the few issues in society that touches everyone, even if we’re not even aware of it because it’s a deeply private issue.”
It touched Nancy Carstedt, executive director of this region’s National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Carstedt, whose job is now to advocate on behalf of people with mental illness, was hospitalized for depression and tried to take her own life.
She stressed the importance of awareness and getting past a “stigma” sometimes associated with mental illness.
She also referred to the Newtown school shooting tragedy as an example of what happens when society is inattentive to mental illness.
“People do get better,” she said. “They go on and lead productive lives.”
And State Rep. Laura Fine, D-17th, relayed her husband’s battles with severe depression following a serious car accident.
Leslie Combs, representing U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-9th, said the congresswoman supports legislation that addresses mental illness with the same seriousness as other illnesses.
“We need to stop treating mental health as if it’s different than physical illness,” she said.
Dan Wasmer, associate director of region services for the Illinois Division of Mental Health, has seen providers adopt creative approaches because of shoestring budgets.
But no matter how creative and efficient mental health service providers become, there is no way to avoid the impact of serious budgetary cuts to services.
Fine noted that doctors are more reluctant to take Medicare and Medicaid cases because the state is way behind on its bills. Carstedt said that a prescription drug limit has been a serious obstacle for some patients, some of whom have both mental and physical illness.
For all of these panelists — which also included Karen Chavers representing Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, State Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-18th and Amy Wagner representing Niles Township government, there are day-to-day challenges in trying to find ways to help the more vulnerable people in society.
“The timing is right for those dealing with mental illness to really make their voices heard now,” Carstedt said.