CITY HALL — Mental health advocates commemorated the one-year anniversary of the closure of six city-run mental health clinics by delivering a list of demands to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, calling for the clinics to reopen and angrily criticizing the mayor's policies.
Half of the city’s 12 clinics were closed last year as Emanuel sought to bridge a $369 million budget gap. Two centers on the North Side were shuttered, as well as four on the South Side.
The group, calling itself the Mental Health Movement, asked the mayor to reopen and adequately staff the six clinics that closed last year, and to replace three retiring therapists.
“Think of how we are treated in this city,” said N’Dana Carter, who has struggled with depression and is one of the activists. “We must heal Chicago, and it’s the responsibility of the mayor and the politicians to provide the people of this city with mental health care.”
The protesters, which numbered about 20, said the closing of the centers severed important relationships clients had built and relied upon for years. At the shuttered Northwest Mental Health Center in Logan Square, therapists related to Latino clients culturally and linguistically, said clinic volunteer Stephanie Torres.
“Closing these clinics further exacerbates the mental health disparities that are present in these underserved communities,” she said. “Quality mental health services can have a positive ripple effect across communities, and dismantling the system has turned into a major public health issue.”
In 2009, the city attempted to close four of the 12 centers, citing the state’s budget crunch. But the centers remained open after it was revealed a faulty billing system led to the state’s withholding of more than $1 million in funding.
The city promised to work with clients affected by clinic closures to ensure an effective transition to another city clinic or to private care. But the protestors said hundreds of patients were lost in the transition.
After the six clinics closed last year, the city reported serving 2,722 clients in December 2012. But eight months earlier, in April, the month the clinics closed, 3,282 clients were served, according to city data.
“Our concern is what happened to those folks,” said Jo Patton, AFSCME’s director of special projects.
But city officials contend mental health services have actually improved since the closures.
The city is continuing to work “with community members and mental health leaders on vital mental health reforms and, as a result, Chicago’s mental health services have been strengthened,” said a Department of Public Health spokesman. The department is also working to fill staffing vacancies, he said.
The city paid $500,000 to private mental health care providers to take on additional patients after the city’s clinics closed. Seven private clinics conducted about 1,100 visits in the first six months after the six clinics closed, a city report said. In all, 429 city clients moved to private care, the report said.
The city won an additional $1 million federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration — money which was funneled to private organizations to provide services for more than 1,900 clients, the report said.
But two of the private organizations the city hoped would take in patients closed amid their own budget crises, including the Community Mental Health Council, which served more than 1,000 patients.
Patton said therapists at the six remaining city clinics have “an impossible caseload,” with upwards of 100 clients per therapist.
The clinic closures were expected to save the city about $3 million, a figure the protestors said was paltry considering tax breaks given to large corporations the city wooed, including a multi-million dollar tax-increment financing subsidy benefiting Hyatt Hotels in Hyde Park.
“Healing Chicago is important,” Carter said. “We had 500 murders [in 2012], we are closing schools. When these six clinics closed, violence rose.”