In January 2019, the City Council responded to pressure by community activists—who had been organizing for better public mental health services ever since then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six of the city’s public mental health clinics—by establishing a task force to study where in the city clinics should be reopened. A year later, that task force appears to be defunct, and Dr. Allison Arwady, the newly-appointed commissioner of public health, told the Weekly that the Chicago Department of Public Health is forming a new one. As of this writing, none of the shuttered mental health clinics are slated to be reopened. Advocates have criticized the original task force’s accomplishments, and question the motives behind establishing a new one.
Fourth Ward Alderman Sophia King drafted the resolution that established the 2019 task force, and forty-six of the Council’s fifty aldermen co-sponsored it. The legislation mandated that the task force include two representatives of CDPH, two from AFSCME (the union that represents public mental health clinic workers), and two from the Chicago Community Mental Health Board (an advisory body to the CDPH), as well as two aldermen from among those whose wards where clinics were closed. The task forces are charged with studying “which community areas shall be prioritized for reopening mental health clinics” and making recommendations for “expanding and improving services at existing facilities.” The legislation also directed the task force to hold a public hearing, which it did at Malcolm X College on the Near West Side last June. (King, who represents parts of Hyde Park, Kenwood, Bronzeville, and the South Loop, declined the Weekly’s request for comment.)
Arwady said in an interview that the new task force will be run out of the mayor’s office, and will focus on coordinating the city’s assorted efforts around mental health. “There will be an overarching focus on mental health equity,” with subcommittees to address clinical spaces, diversion, and crisis intervention, she said. “There will be aldermen involved in it, there will be community folks involved in it, there will be providers, there will be people with lived experience.” She added that the new task force will replace the 2019 one, adding that the previous task force “is not active at the moment.”
“As a body, the  task force didn’t accomplish anything,” said Dr. Judy King, one of the CCMHB representatives on the task force, in an email to the Weekly. “The individuals initially invited to the task force,” per the resolution, “met as a group once on May 16, 2019. The public was excluded. Two of us objected. It was the only meeting.” Dr. King added that the June public meeting “was not an official hearing of the task force. We never voted on it.”
More than two hundred community members attended the public hearing, where twenty-five individuals testified to their experiences with mental health services. Attendees also provided written testimony and filled out a survey about their experiences. Dr. Leticia Villareal Sosa, a professor of social work at Dominican University in northwest suburban River Forest, moderated the hearing and drafted a report based on its findings.
The report identified barriers to accessing mental health services that included cost, lack of insurance, long distances to public clinics, and poor treatment from providers. The report also detailed the “systemic harm” that historical and ongoing trauma has on underserved communities. Recommendations included increasing funding and moving beyond solely using block grant funding for public clinics; expanding services to underserved communities on the South, West, and Southwest Sides of the city; and increasing access to trauma-informed mental health services (trauma-informed care describes an approach to care that is sensitive to the impact trauma has had on patients’ well-being).
Villareal Sosa said that copies of the report went to the task force and to the Collaborative for Community Wellness, a collective of mental health providers, community organizations, and residents. “The aldermen certainly have used the report,” in particular to leverage opposition to Arwady’s appointment in October 2019, she said. “Unfortunately, as far as I know at this point, the [CDPH] has not used… the report to inform any of their decisions.”
When asked how the recommendations from the 2019 task force report would be implemented by CDPH, Arwady said she “did not have specific pieces in front of me, but we are certainly taking input from a lot of directions; we have been and continue to do so.” She added that the task force was not organized by CDPH, and said questions about it would be best directed to the City Council.
Arwady also said that CDPH conducted “a lot of structured interviews and conversations with folks across Chicago who work in different settings.” She said the department interviewed community organizations and patients who are served by public clinics to identify strengths and gaps in the mental health system. “All of that data was used to help develop” the mayor’s plan to address deficiencies in public mental health, which included a pledge to double spending on mental health (an increase of about $9 million), provide trauma-informed services, and improve outreach.
The CDPH and City Clerk’s office responded to public records requests the Weekly submitted for materials related to the public hearing by saying neither office had any notes, transcripts, or other documents from the meeting. Dr. King submitted a FOIA request to CDPH regarding fifty structured interviews the department conducted with stakeholders between June and October 2019 to develop its mental health framework, and said she was similarly rebuffed, receiving simply a list of stakeholders but none of their answers.
“I think a lot more could be done in terms of really acknowledging some of the findings of the report,” Villareal Sosa said. “I would like to see more inclusion of this [community] perspective by the CDPH in terms of their decision-making around services. I think it could be used in a wider, more intentional way.”
Patrick Brosnan, the executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, one of several community groups that has advocated for expanding public mental health access, said he thinks the 2019 task force was not “really invested in” by the CDPH or taken as seriously as it should have been. “That’s too bad, because I think that there’s a lot of good people, including people who used the public clinics, whose opinion should be taken into consideration when we’re making decisions about funding and quality.”
“I hope that the new task force is not just going to be filled with people who are just going to be providing some sort of intellectual or community currency to the existing plans without actually critically examining the system that we have in place and looking at the gaps,” Brosnan said. “And I hope there’s people on the task force who believe in the public system, and not just people who believe that privatization is the way to go.”
Jim Daley is the Weekly’s politics editor.