By Patrice Nkrumah, Chicago Crusader
The story last week of a man boarding a CTA bus and then beating a woman and the bus driver with frozen chickens is just the latest bizarre crime committed by a person with a mental illness. This summer a deranged man stabbed a woman on a CTA train because she would not have his baby. Rank and file police and paramedics say they are dealing with more mentally ill citizens during their shifts than ever before. All of this is occurring four years after Mayor Emanuel closed half of the city’s mental health clinics at the same time when former Gov. Pat Quinn closed the Tinley Park Mental Health Center and several other state-run facilities providing mental care.
The effects of the closings has touched everyone in the state, but the Black community is particularially taking it hard. Those with loved ones with mental illnesses say it is harder to get them their meds and keep them on consistently because of a lack of counselors and physicians. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart last year hired a mental health professional to become the jail warden because of the drastic increase of mental illnesses among the jail population. And mental health activists have been protesting for years, to little avail, to try to motivate citizens to stand up on the issue.
Encounters with police are increasing around the country between the mentally ill and cops, and many have ended in fatalities. This summer in southern Florida, a mental health case worker was accidentally shot by police during an encounter when he was trying to help a patient. Three years ago a Park Forest police officer fatally shot a resident at a senior citizen home with bean bags after the man was having a violent outburst. Activists say these sad incidents will continue to become common until the country as a whole starts to take mental health seriously.
“There are great needs in these communities for mental health services,” said N’Dana Carter. “We don’t have a third of the services that we need. When we watch all of the African Americans that are dying at the hands of police or other African Americans, this leads to depression and anxiety, all mental health issues. The public has to believe they have the right…especially Black people. And elected officials have to believe that their constituents have this right and if they speak up they won’t be shot down.”
Members of AFSCME Local 31 said in 2011 when the closings were being proposed that the closing of the 75-bed unit at Tinley Park would have a “devastating affect” on the surrounding communities. AFSCME said those patients were the most vulnerable and posed the biggest risk to themselves and the public at large. But the state ignored the warnings and closed a total of seven mental health institutions due to funding.
Both U.S. Presidential candidates have talked a lot about the need to fund mental health in the country. But few states or municipalities have pending legislation to do so. Here in Illinois, Southside state Rep. Mary Flowers (D) has been an advocate since her first day in office. She said how the state even defines mental illness is something she does not agree with and she has proposed legislation in an effort to make things clearer for fear that some people will be misdiagnosed and not get the proper treatment.
“State laws regarding competence, criminal responsibility, and disability all use the manual’s [DSM-V] definitions of mental illness,” said Flowers, who says little is being done to address the issue despite politicians saying they will do more.”
Activists in Chicago in August garnered over 10,000 signatures on a petition urging city leaders to create a special tax to fund mental health facilities. Jackie Ingram was one of the organizers. She said more mental health centers are needed on the city’s West Side. She said the heroin and PCP users on the West Side have become increasingly violent as drug addiction is something people with mental illness often turn to when they do not get their proper meds. Two weeks ago a Chicago Police officer was nearly killed when she was attacked by a man under the influence of PCP.
“The smallest trigger can send anyone into a rage. We are trying to get our normal back, and we all know it’s not been normal for a long time on the West Side,” she said.
The Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers was successful in getting the issue of increasing taxes for the funding on the ballot for next month’s election. Voters can vote yes or no to an increase of $16 to fund the facilities.
Ingram said it is important to address issues early on before they develop into more serious conditions. She said something even as small as a child with anger issues can lead to more serious ailments like depression, schizophrenia and drug abuse.
“We don’t want to start paying attention when we see these public acts of violent rage like we’ve had the past few months,” Ingram said. “We want to prevent it from getting to that point because that is when everyone’s life is in danger.”
N’Dana Carter is a lead organizer for the Mental Health Movement organization. Right now she is focused on preventing Mayor Emanuel and other city leaders from closing down the Roseland Mental Health Center at 200 W. 115th in the Roseland community. Carter said Roseland has one of the highest needs for mental health facilities based on its residents in the state. She said closing the facility would be one of the worst decisions ever made and she said it is time for the community as a whole to stand up as one and stop Emanuel in his tracks.
“Roseland has the largest number of residents with repeat visits to Cook County Jail’s mental health ward,” Carter began. “What we need are expanded services. What the Mayor wants to do is not expand, but give the services to a private agency. The city has the funding to support the clinic. The reason we want a public clinic is because it is supported by taxpayers as a service, therefore it is never at risk of going out of business.”
Next week Carter and other activists will be holding a press conference to fight for the Roseland clinic and to encourage residents to join in the battle. Carter also said Black churches as a whole have not addressed the issue and she blames ministers for not looking into the soul of their congregants that are hurting.
“The Black Church, oftentimes like the Black politician, has gone to the dark side,” Carter said. “They have not looked into the heart of the people…because if they did, it would be impossible to embrace and endorse Rahm Emanuel because he has done more to kill Black boys and girls in Chicago than any other politician in history.”