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Skokie forum explores mental health challenges

Monday, February 13, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

Statistics show that one in three people will face a mental health issue some time in their lives.

That leads to important and difficult questions, some of which were posed Friday by Skokie Public Library Director Carolyn Anthony at a town hall meeting.

How do we care for one another with compassion? How do we bring greater understanding of mental illness and address the stigma attached to it?

Anthony’s questions led off Turning Point Behavioral Care Center’s 11th annual town hall meeting on mental health issues. Her questions hinted at challenges that have always been formidable, of course, but perhaps no more so than in today’s crippled economy when crucial grants and other funding are routinely slashed.

“Every year we come together to share our concerns, experiences and suggestions for change with a panel of decision makers,” said Turning Point CEO Ann Raney.

Those decision makers ranged from state elected leaders to representatives of Illinois health agencies. A representative of U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-9th, was also part of the panel discussion.

Turning Point Behavioral Care Center, located in Skokie, serves residents from 42 communities including Skokie, Evanston, Chicago, Des Plaines, Glenview, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove, Niles, Park Ridge and Wilmette. Raney said that Turning Point just recently submitted a grant proposal that would allow the facility to expand to a 24-hour/seven-day schedule.

“Turning Point has empowered me to train, practice good self care and refine my skills,” Turning Point Counselor Robert Haggard told the audience.

Haggard at age 30 was hospitalized and underwent outpatient treatment for bipolar illness. But he survived, returning to “a good quality of life,” and now helps others in need.

“That brief period of time in my life paired with the help of many people along the way allowed me to accept my life with a diagnosis of bipolar disease,” he said. “Through my treatment, I changed my behaviors for the better.”

But mental health care providers face unprecedented challenges now, in part because of the state’s fiscal crisis. Gov. Pat Quinn has said he wants to cut $2 billion from the state Medicaid program.

Medicaid costs account for a quarter of the state’s health care costs, noted State Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-18th. The goal, she said, is to contain costs but make sure people get the care they need.

Gabel and her colleagues are taking a serious look at an Integrated Care Program built on community medical homes and facilities.

“The good thing about this program is that it includes mental health as one of the treatment options that had to be included,” she said.

State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, D-9th, said serious efforts to contain health care costs are reflected in the imminent closing of the Tinley Park Health Center.

“This has been a titanic struggle for years even though we have very clear and compelling evidence as to how community-based treatments and strategies are not only more cost-efficient but also more beneficial for the individuals,” he said.

Plans call for closing the mental health care facility in the summer. Schoenberg said the facility stayed open for years even though the federal government ruled it ineligible for federal funding.

That will help, but slashing $2 billion leaves many concerned about how vulnerable people will be protected. One panelist said there really is no way to reduce the budget by that much without reducing eligibility for services and funding.

Dan Wasmer of the mental health division of the Illinois Department of Human Services noted though that Illinois operated health care facilities are among the state’s most expensive health care expenses.

“The governor’s intention to bring that resource from a distant state hospital and bring it back to the community is putting the state’s money where its mouth is in terms of investing in the community,” he said. “It’s community collaborations like this that can make the difference.”

Medicaid is only one fiscal burden confronting the state. The budget crisis has also been exacerbated by a public pension system containing abuses or loopholes.

State Rep. Daniel Biss, D-17th, said legislators are always working to try to close loopholes.

“Closing the loopholes though and fixing the most offensive and egregious abuses are not itself enough (to address) an unmanageable burden on the state budget,” Biss warned.

The entire pension system, Biss said, is on the table for exploration. The issue has become so controversial, he said, that progress can be made only by “turning down the heat some” on all sides.

Marvin Lindsey of Community Behavioral Heath Care Association of Illinois said he believes many people “misunderstand” those with mental health issues.

“Part of my job and your job is to help them understand what mental health illness is,” he said, adding that most people and legislators look at mental illness “differently than we do.”

“It’s going to take not only some education but some persuasion, too,” he said.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-13th, wants the Cook County Housing Authority to become an agency of the county, which it currently is not. Mental health is not part of the county’s responsibility even though Cook County runs one of largest health systems in the region.

“We have to be advocates in a much stronger way than we’ve been in the past for those essential human services we believe government needs to provide,” he said.

Asked about how to make the community better understand mental illness, Nancy Carstedt, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness — Cook County North Suburban, said that’s part of her everyday mission.

“We can’t often do a whole lot of changing other people’s opinions or perceptions,” she said, “but what we can do is to change our own perceptions and our thoughts. I think programs and support groups...are really designed to help people with serious mental illness and their families.”

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