Mental Health Reforms Would Be Great - If They Weren't at Gunpoint

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Byline: Burt Constable

In his misguided targeting of mental health services as an obvious place to trim fat from the state budget, Gov. George Ryan could end up being the impetus for some much-needed and long- overdue changes in the way we treat our mentally ill.

Other states provide the funding to build improved community- based services for the mentally ill, which eventually makes it possible for people to stay out of institutions. Our state plans to save money by kicking people out of Elgin Mental Health Center, making it essential for mental health care professionals to immediately develop community-based services to handle them.

The long-term goals are wonderful, but the short-sighted method is maddening. To thank Gov. Ryan for this "great opportunity" is akin to a pirate pausing at the end of the plank to thank his captors for providing a "great opportunity" to learn how to swim.

"It's a very difficult scenario with a real potential to bring really needed services to the community," says Karen Beyer, executive director of the Ecker Center for Mental Health located in Elgin.

"The fact is we have do to this," says Danise Habun, director of community mental health services for the Hanover Township mental health board.

Habun and Beyer politely remind the three dozen mental health experts at a community forum this week in Bartlett that complaining wastes time better spent scrambling to write a plan by the end of January that will list the services needed July 1, after 150 of the 200 beds at the Elgin Mental Health Center are closed.

"The best level of service is in the community," notes Mike Pelletier, the mental health network director for the state.

No one disputes that. Confining mentally ill people in an institution was an old idea back in 1869, when the Elgin facility opened.

Curbing hospital services without providing alternatives was a problem the last time mentally ill people were promised the right to be "de-institutionalized."

"What we gave them was the right to be destitute, the right to live on the street," one mental health worker in the crowd says. …