Chicago is making strides when it comes to talking about mental health

My 2023 wish for Chicago is that we all talk more about mental health, every day, not just after a crisis. Mental health is health, and I don’t want people’s struggles with it to go unspoken.

That’s why, under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s leadership, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) has expanded access to mental health services to reach 15 times more residents than in 2019.

As we expand access, we must also continue to change the mental health conversation by reducing stigma and sharing information widely when new resources become available.

In 2019, we took a close look at our data. That year, approximately 3,600 Chicagoans received CDPH-funded mental health care, including five city-operated mental health clinics. Zero of these residents were under the age of 18.

This clearly didn’t meet the city’s needs, but the right answer wasn’t as simple as opening more clinics.

In a city of 2.7 million people with huge unmet mental health needs — including youth in crisis and people with needs that will never be met by outpatient clinics — serving, say, 6,000 residents or opening clinics was not thinking enough. big. We decided to aim for 10 times that number: 60,000 Chicagoans receiving high-quality, barrier-free mental health care, regardless of insurance status, immigration status, or ability to pay. We also wanted to treat children, integrate physical health and substance use treatment, and take treatment beyond traditional clinical walls.

In three short years, even during a pandemic, we have achieved that ambitious goal. Last year, 60,000 Chicagoans received CDPH-funded high-quality mental health care, up from 3,600 in 2019. About 15,000 of those treated were children, up from 0 in 2019. We still have a long way to go, but I want every Chicagoan to know that there are more mental health services available in your neighborhood, right now, regardless of your income, insurance status, or immigration status.

Since 2019, the mayor and city council have increased our department’s mental health budget sevenfold, from $12 million to $89 million, allowing us to double the number of city staff working in mental health and build skills at trusted community sites. We’ve invested heavily in our city-run clinics, adding evening hours, language access, telehealth, and pediatric doctors. We’ve also doubled down on a trauma-based model of care, which shifts the conversation away from a “What’s wrong with you?” framework that induces the stigma of a “What happened to you?” framework that induces empathy.

CDPH now funds a new network of 50 clinical mental health organizations, collectively known as Trauma-Informed Centers of Care (TICC). TICCs include community mental health centers, federally qualified health centers, and community-based organizations, along with mental health clinics directly operated by the CDPH. A publicly funded clinic in each of our 77 neighborhoods is no longer a pipe dream.

And for the first time, Chicago integrated mental health professionals into the city’s 911 response system through its Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement (CARE) program, which successfully answered its first 500 calls without arrests. We will expand CARE teams in 2023 and create alternative transport destinations for patients, such as a sobering new center for those suffering from alcohol intoxication.

Chicago also recently funded integrated primary care and behavioral health care throughout its homeless shelter system, seeing more than 5,000 patients last year for a doctor’s visit. In late 2023, we will launch a stabilization housing program where those experiencing homelessness and untreated mental health and substance use issues can live in their own unit while receiving on-site health care.

The stigma still exists, and our “Unspoken” campaign seeks to remind Chicagoans that coping with a mental health challenge doesn’t have to be a silent internal struggle. Everyone can help by spreading the word about these new programs and resources, speaking up about their mental health challenges without shame, and having the courage to start the conversation with someone who may be struggling. A new national number, 988, has been launched for mental health crisis support. And our phased plan for 211 is on schedule, with the call center launching in early 2023, following the 2022 launch of a website and database for food, housing and utilities assistance.

Support is available throughout the city. To find the care you need, visit mentalhealth.chicago.gov, call 311, or call the CDPH Mental Health Clinic Intake Line at 312-747-1020.

Allison Arwady, MD, is commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

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