Rich Miller

Rich Miller

State must do better helping the mentally ill

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By Rich Miller

Gov. JB Pritzker declared last week when announcing the formation of the Behavioral Health Workforce Education Center that the state was building “the best behavioral health system in the nation.”

It was quite a bold thing to say. So, my associate, Isabel Miller, and I asked a couple of follow-up questions: How long will this take and how much will it cost?

The response from a spokesperson was kinda underwhelming: “Under Governor Pritzker’s leadership, the state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild our behavioral health infrastructure and the Governor is committed to continuing these critical investments year after year to build the best system in the nation. Illinois has climbed in the national rankings by putting our people first and we’re on the right path if we continue to make generational change. With our statewide partnerships and continued investment Illinois will soon serve as the national standard for a behavioral health system that prioritizes workers and provides the best possible care for those who need it.”

That obviously didn’t answer either of our questions. No brownie points for brevity, either. Sorry to make you read it.

Also, the background information the governor’s office sent about the administration’s progress didn’t quite match the governor’s flowery rhetoric.

Recent national rankings issued by Mental Health America, a group founded more than a century ago, show Illinois has moved from an 11th-place overall mental health back in 2018 to ninth place this year. An overall ranking of 1-13, according to the organization, “indicates lower prevalence of mental illness and higher rates of access to care.”

RichMiller 1

Rich Miller

However, the state’s ranking for adults actually slipped during that time period from eighth to ninth, and the ranking for youth remained at 13th. This is despite spending hundreds of millions of additional dollars since the start of 2019 on mental health initiatives.

Even so, a key stakeholder heaped praise on the governor’s plan to use the new Behavioral Health Workforce Education Center to lead the revamp of the long-troubled Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in deep southern Illinois.

Equip for Equality issued an investigative report back in 2005 that documented numerous horrors at Choate. The group called for the facility’s closure at the time. “Nearly two decades later,” the group claimed last week via press release, “enhanced monitoring activities show little has changed.”

The group claims that Choate residents continue to be “segregated” from their community “without receiving the necessary services to actually address why they ended up there.” Residents, the group said, continue to be “afraid of staff and peers, and afraid of retaliation if they report staff abuse.”

“Many of the recent news stories are about incidents that happened a year or more ago,” said Stacey Aschemann, Equip for Equality’s vice president in charge of monitoring the conditions at Choate. “Based on our recent monitoring, we can say without a doubt that these continue to be ongoing issues.”

So, why has it taken so long for the state to act? The governor told reporters that the state simply hadn’t had the financial resources to do enough about the problem. The new Behavioral Health Workforce Education Center has been in the works for five years and will hopefully help the state increase the workforce size enough to deal with the issues, not only at Choate, but throughout the state. With more tax revenues coming in, the state can start getting a handle on things.

Make no mistake, the problems are severe, despite what national rankings may show. Currently, 15,000 people are on a waiting list for community-based intellectual and developmental disabilities placement, according to a report last week by Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises and ProPublica Illinois. Those outlets’ reporting on Choate, by the way, sparked the recent intense interest in the facility’s many problems and helped push the administration into action, a fact which Pritzker himself has acknowledged.

There are, of course, parochial concerns about any changes at Choate. Sen. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro), who represents the area, claimed the central problem is with facility management (a good point) and said she opposed moving residents out of the facility (not so good). AFSCME, of course, is worried about the future of its members at Choate.

The bottom line is that the state just has to get smarter. These problems have existed for decades and decades, but the folks at Choate and thousands of others across this state deserve care and help, not physical abuse and neglect. The people in charge need to be better than this, so this attempt to bring new workers into the system and keep them there cannot fail.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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