Commissioner Fails to Show at Mental Health Town Hall Meeting

by Mary C. Piemonte 

Community activist Lonnie Richardson discusses the need for mental health services for young people at a town hall on Aug. 5. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

Dozens of people concerned with the state of the city’s mental health services, who packed a community meeting this week, were disappointed when the city public health commissioner did not show up.

N’Dana Carter, a member of the Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) community human rights organization, who was moderating the event at Mercy Hospital’s Joyce Auditorium, 2525 S. Michigan Ave., on the evening of August 5 told the audience that Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair called and cancelled two hours before the meeting began.

“Our fearless leader Dr. Choucair…called at 3:30 p.m. to cancel. He will not be here,” declared Carter, a consumer at the Greater Grand/Mid-South Mental Health facility at 4314 S. Cottage Grove.

“Dr. Choucair didn’t make the meeting tonight, because he felt that we were going to ambush him. And he was afraid. He was afraid because the citizens of the city of Chicago and our visitors want the mental health clinics, and they don’t want privatization of any of the health clinics,” she added.

STOP and the meeting’s other organizers wanted to meet with Choucair to underscore how important the rehabilitation, counseling and other services at the city’s 12 mental health facilities are to their communities. Many members of the crowd at the event expressed their disappointment vociferously when Choucair didn’t show up to meet with them.

Four of the mental health facilities in low-income areas were targeted to close in April 2009. But members from various human rights groups got former Mayor Richard M. Daley to keep them open. Now they want to know if the mental health clinics will remain open and adequately serviced under new Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

Speakers’ Comments

Choucair’s no-show really bothered a working Chicago nurse practitioner who spoke during the open mic session. She said she was “sick” of Emanuel’s focus on big businesses’ plans to solve the city’s problems.

“Big businesses can not solve our problems. We are tax paying citizens. Our citizens have problems, and it’s very disrespectful of the commissioner not to be here,” she declared. “Every week he sends out a weekly update of things that he has done and we want everyone to ask, ‘Why in the hell you didn’t come to this?’”

The nurse went on to say that many of the youths killing each other in the city’s low-income areas have mental health problems:

“The commissioner and the mayor can go to their private clinics and get help. But we don’t have anywhere to go. Our young boys don’t have anywhere to go. Our sons don’t have anywhere to go. Our fathers don’t have anywhere to go,” she said. She added that her father was suffering from mental health issues.

Jake from Rogers Park said the consumers of the mental health facilities should petition the mayor as well as aldermen as well to keep the mental health facilities open and effective. “Particularly Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who is the chair of the Health, Energy and Environment Committee,” he said.

Speakers at the event testified how their clinical therapists assisted them with obtaining social services and developing their life skills.

The Panelists’ Take

The meeting, billed a “Mental Health Movement” town hall, featured four panelists, Dr. Constance Fullilove from the Women’s Treatment Center, Dr. Karen Simpson, a clinical therapist at the Greater Grand Clinic, Marti Luckett, a consumer at the Beverly/Morgan Park Clinic, and Lonnie Richardson, a mental health consumer and organizer for STOP.

The panelists talked about the problems with privatization, why public mental health services are important to the city and its communities, and how they help people overcome mental illnesses including anxiety, depression and psychotic disorders. They also talked about what the current challenges were to the public mental health system and about what their vision is for the future. Several of the panelists claimed that privatization of the mental health facilities would lead to providers reducing services to save money, endangering the safety net for the poor and the chronically mentally ill, and placing mental health consumers at risk, especially since many Chicagoans are either uninsured or their carriers do not cover mental health. The panelists also discussed the March 2011 announcement from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Mayor Emanuel that they had created a committee to see how merging the City of Chicago and Cook County services could “reduce costs, streamline interactions with residents, and provide better services.”

Co-presenters of the townhall meeting included AFSCME Council 31, the Community Mental Health Board of Chicago, and the National Sarcoidosis Society.

A State Representative

State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) speaks at a town hall on mental health services in the city. Photo by Mary C. Piemonte.

During the meeting, Mary Flowers, an Illinois state representative for the last 27 years and chairman of the Health Care Committee as well as the committee on Access and Availability, said she knows that importance of mental health care.

“If you do not have your health, mentally as well as physically, you might as well not have anything,” Flowers said. “…(Y)ou also tell them that you are a taxpayer. And just like you expect the street lights to work. Just like you expect your roads and bridges to be safe, I too expect to have access to quality health care.”

Flowers said she was “amazed” that some elected officials look at mental illness as criminal behavior. “It’s just like any other illness that needs to be treated. And it needs to be respected,” she said.

STOP members and the other advocates said they were going to send 5,000 letters to the mayor to call for all 12 of the mental health clinics is fully staffed and fully funded. They asked Flowers to sign her name on the letter, and she did.

Deputy Commissioner’s Reply

Jose Muñoz, deputy commissioner at the Department of Public Health, said during a phone interview on Aug. 11 that Choucair didn’t show up because the original purpose of the meeting had been changed.

“The conversation shifted completely from looking at the state of mental health in the city of Chicago to just focusing on one specific aspect of mental health, which wasn’t what we originally signed on for,” Muñoz said.

Muñoz said the original plan was for county, state, and other stakeholders that are involved in Chicago’s public health system to come to the meeting. “Unfortunately we didn’t get notice of who was actually going to be on the panel until the night before. So when we got notice of who was sitting on the panel, we saw that they had switched the focus on the panel. It was no longer city, county, state, it was just Commissioner Choucair. So we had to decline.”

Muñoz added that the more important thing for everyone to know is that the city is still committed to providing Chicago residents the highest in patient care, including mental health. And he said as they craft their 2012 budget, “We are going to be working diligently to mitigate any funding reductions that may be forthcoming from the state and federal governments. We absolutely value the input of all our partners. And we are going to continue to work alongside with the mental health advisory board and the voice of the Mental Health Movement to make sure we get input into our budget decisions.”

In a couple of days, the Department of Public Health will be sending out information allowing individuals from the Mental Health Advisory Board to provide input into that process, which Muñoz added would be very similar to what they did last year.

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