Chicago is taking strides to improve mental health care

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s never been more important than ever. It is clear from healthcare professionals that our nation is facing a mental health crisis of significant proportions. We don’t just hear about it on the news and on social media, but among family and friends.

And now, we must not give voice to a topic that often remains unspoken. We must act and tackle the crisis.

Over the past few years, people who never thought they would experience mental health struggles have faced depression, stress, anxiety, and sadness. People with serious mental illnesses already faced new challenges.

What is particularly frightening are the mental health and behavioral challenges that our young people face. In 2021, more than a third of US high school students – 37% – reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless over the past year.

There is no doubt that the increasing prevalence of mental health and behavioral challenges is linked to the many adjustments we have encountered during the pandemic. Likewise, the highly polarized public arena and the spread of misinformation on social media has also contributed.

However, signs of the crisis were flashing long before the COVID-19 pandemic appeared. Indications such as death by suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol abuse are all on the rise.

In mid-May, we will share an update with all Chicagoans on the tremendous progress the city has made with community partners and the extensive initiatives we are adding to address the full range of mental health challenges we face. We will highlight the programs, resources, and initiatives available to all residents in every corner of the city. We want to remove the stigma from the idea that only a few suffer from mental health issues.

Over the past few years, Chicago has invested more in mental health than ever before. In 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot launched the Mental Health Equity Framework, which tripled the mental health budget at the Chicago Department of Public Health to create a citywide network of care, by funding community providers and filling service gaps. We are currently on track to serve more than 50,000 residents with mental health needs this year, up from less than 4,000 in 2019 – regardless of income, insurance status, immigration status or ability to pay.

Just one example of the profound impact of our partnerships: A Humboldt Park neighbor sought food assistance through Lakeview Pantry, where she also spent time with the Social Services Welfare Coordinator after sharing that her anxiety has increased since the start of the pandemic. The care coordinator helped connect the client with an on-site therapist, and even set up an initial treatment appointment for her later that week.

A week after contacting the therapist, the client discovered that her partner had a terminal illness. We’ve been able to provide her with mental health support for the duration of her partner’s treatment and, eventually, their departure within six months, and she still sees a therapist who is within walking distance of her home.

The additional dollars we’ve invested since 2019, seven times more than the previous budget, has dramatically boosted access to mental health and therapy. This money has been earmarked to fund 38 clinics in 35 community areas, with plans to expand into all 77 community areas this year.

But the systematic approach is much more than just financing brick-and-mortar sites. Those newly invested dollars have also funded teams of mental health professionals to respond to 911 calls through the Crisis Assistance and Response Assistance Program, or CARE pilot program. They have helped launch programs to turn Chicagoans with serious mental illness or addiction away from the criminal justice system into a support network where they can receive ongoing care. These dollars also mean continued investment in mental health clinics run by the Center for Mental Health (CDPH) and citywide coordination of a wide range of resources.

Mental health is a challenge that cannot be met with a one-size-fits-all solution. Mental health programs are only as powerful as the people working to raise the health of our great city. We will continue to invest heavily in the human resources needed to increase access and treatment options for all populations who need them.

Please stay tuned for a month dedicated to healing, hope, and well-being, with resources deployed to provide decades of better health for all.

Alison Arwady, MD, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. Wellness Yasmin, MD, is the medical director of behavioral health at CDPH. Geraldine Luna, MD, is the medical director of the COVID-19 Response Office at CDPH. Erica E. Taylor, MD, is the medical director of pooled settings at CDPH.