The Fight for Mental Health Services in Chicago

By Cusac, Anne-Marie | The Progressive, May 2015 | Go to article overview

The Fight for Mental Health Services in Chicago


Cusac, Anne-Marie, The Progressive


Diana Bryant loves to dance. In a few days, she will sway and bop at a big celebration she helped raise money for and plan along with twenty-four other clients and volunteers at Chicago's North River Mental Health Center. But dancing is something she's done all her life.

"In my apartment, alone, I would dance until I was exhausted so the voices in my head that sounded like my dad would go away," Bryant says. The music and movement could give her mind a break when the self talk came "just like my dad--his voice, his comments, which were always very cruel." Bryant, now in her late sixties, describes an alcoholic father who probably had mental illness. "You could walk in the house with your shoes untied and it would cause major problems," she says. "He was violent and reactive to every little thing. That was his illness."

His words stayed with her. "You're no good," her mind would say. "How stupid can you be?"

The dancing tired her body until she dropped from exhaustion, which brought relief. "If you're too tired, you can't think," she says.

Then one day, Bryant broke her ankle. Her bone recovered, but the strategy she'd once used to make the voices go away was unavailable. The bad ankle had stopped her dancing.

Three months after her fall, Bryant returned to work. "I was sitting at my desk and I felt like the room was starting to close in on me. I could not breathe," she says. She phoned a psychiatrist she'd seen for depression, and learned that he had died. She grabbed her purse, told her boss she was leaving, and walked out. She took the El home, but can't remember the rest. Her landlord found her.

"I was in their house, in their chair, balled up into a little ball, and I scared them half to death," she says. "I wasn't making any sense." Bryant ended up in the psychiatric unit at Chicago's Swedish Covenant Hospital for three weeks. She says her boss called and fired her while she was there.

But Bryant tells the story of this breakdown with gratitude. Swedish Covenant Hospital referred her to the North River Mental Health Center, a public clinic that serves impoverished people with serious mental health disorders. It was there that she received a diagnosis of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"A lot of people think that post-traumatic stress disorder is just for people in the military," she says. "It's not. You can get it when you've been an abused child. You can get it when you're in situations that you cannot get out of. It's usually a very cruel situation."

Diana Bryant's story shows how mental illness can strike anyone, and how crucial it is to get accessible and affordable care. Mental health care cuts at the state and city level have been devastating, but the story of North River shows that people do value mental health care and that they can work together to protect and even create it. But cuts remain a threat, as the shortage of psychiatrists and the uncertain future of the North River clinic show.

In 1991, the city of Chicago had nineteen public mental health clinics. By 2012, there were twelve left. That year, Chicago city officials closed six more, a controversial move that helped drive this year's grassroots effort to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Of the six centers that remain, North River is the only one serving the city's vast North Side. The efforts of devoted activists (made up of both mental health consumers and members of the community) have kept North River open. But the consumers fear it could be the next to close.

Reductions in Chicago mental health services are a microcosm of a national issue. Cuts to public mental health over the past several decades crowd our jails, making them repositories for people with mental illness.

"Currently, the largest mental health hospital in Illinois is not even a hospital--it's Cook County Jail, which I oversee as sheriff," wrote Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in an op-ed last July for the Chicago Tribune. …

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