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IL Mental Health System "On the Critical List"

Agnes Misiaszek, SASS counselor, meets with a young girl served by the crisis intervention program    Courtesy of: LSSI
Agnes Misiaszek, SASS counselor, meets with a young girl served by the crisis intervention program Courtesy of: LSSI
May 7, 2013

CHICAGO - May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and mental-health-care providers say years of budget cuts have created a public health crisis for Illinoisans who need treatment. According to Chicago mother Marquisha Harris, it has been nearly impossible to find mental-health services for her daughter who has autism.

"It was a whole year and a half that I had doors closed in my face to the point where my eight-year-old couldn't go to school for months at a time because she was uncontrollable," Harris said. "They couldn't control her."

Eventually, her daughter wound up getting emergency services from a Screening Assessment and Support Services (SASS) intervention program at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and has been stabilized.

She may be one of the lucky ones. The Department of Human Services estimates that only 16 percent of those who need help will be able to get it in 2014.

Frank Anselmo, CEO of the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois, said that more than $130 million has been cut from mental health and substance-abuse programs over the last three years. He said Governor Pat Quinn's proposed budget stops the bleeding. However, he added, the situation is still not good.

"We are also on the critical list," he declared. "Right now we have suicide rates that are off the chart. Right now we do have people that need care that are dangerous to themselves first of all, but also they can be dangerous to other people."

Karah Kohler, who supervises the SASS program that provided Marquisha Harris with help for her daughter, said that the governor's budget proposes to cut $2 million from that program, at a time when its caseload has doubled in two years. That cut could cost taxpayers a lot more money, Kohler said, if children in crisis get turned away and wind up hospitalized.

"You know, we're sort of the first line of defense for these people," she pointed out. "They create relationships with their therapists, count on them, they trust them. And when they're in a time of crisis, if they can get in touch with their therapists, sometimes that hospitalization can be avoided."

Marquisha Harris said SASS provided her daughter with a therapist who keeps her stabilized and at home.

"She's on medication now. They came out to the house to evaluate her. They went to the school meetings with me. It was a big help," she said.

The Community Behavioral Healthcare Association is calling on Quinn to restore the SASS cuts and rebuild the system by creating what is known as "coordinated health care homes," which are managed-care programs that handle all the children's care, provide family support and keep them connected to community resources. It's a model in use in New York.

More information is at LSSI.org and at goo.gl/v9ISe.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL