By Richard Boykin
If you need mental health services in Cook County, the largest mental health system isn’t a nursing home. It’s not a community health service either. It’s the Cook County Jail, which provides mental health services for more than 1,200 inmates.
When these inmates complete their sentences and arrive back in the community, they often have medication for only a few days and little if any support. It’s no wonder that Cook County’s recidivism rate hovers around 50 percent in recent years. In fact, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart estimates that over a third of Cook County Jail inmates have mental health needs.
In addition to contributing to the county’s incarceration crisis, the county’s lack of mental health services is especially harmful to low-income citizens. Recent research at Drexel University indicates that up to 40 percent of the urban poor suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms. These citizens often cannot afford private mental health care services and are left to cope on their own.
Our current mental health system not only fails the needs of our community, but is a budget disaster as well. According to the University of Chicago, providing a Cook County Jail inmate with mental health services alone costs $70 per day. In comparison, community mental health services cost only $14 per day for each person treated.
Cook County must improve and expand mental health services, starting with increased funding for community mental health care providers such as Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center, Inc. in Chicago and THRIVE Counseling Center in Oak Park. These providers not only can deliver mental health services at a lower cost, but also allow patients to be productive members of the community while receiving services.
We need to expand and move our mental health services from out behind bars and into the Cook County community. As candidate for Cook County Commissioner for the First District, I stood with Congressman Danny Davis, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and a host of local mental health experts in October to propose a referendum asking the Illinois General Assembly to provide additional funding for mental health care. Simply put, we can no longer send people to Cook County Jail for the mental health services they desperately need. Our community needs viable solutions now.
A nation’s greatness is judged, in part, by how we treat our fellow citizen in need. Whether to reduce violence, save money, or simply because it is the right thing to do, Cook County must improve its community mental health services. VFP
Richard Boykin is a partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., offices of Barnes & Thornburg LLP, where he advises clients on government relations and legal matters. He also served as Chief of Staff to Congressman Danny K. Davis for nine years. Mr. Boykin is currently running for a seat representing the 1st District on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.