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Lack of mental health services causing “crisis” for Winn. Co.

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WINNEBAGO COUNTY (WREX) — A lack of mental health services is causing a "crisis" for Winnebago County, experts say.

For months, there's been a push to raise the sales tax to help pay for mental health services. While that's up to voters, county leaders will decide who will be in charge of that sales tax money (if the referendum does pass).

The Winnebago County Health Department says one in five people deals with some issue related to mental health. Chairman Frank Haney says it has also taken a toll on local providers and it can be seen in our criminal justice system. His hope is that a mental health board will change that.

Last week, the chairman recommended seven people from a variety of backgrounds for the newly created mental health board.

While those nominees await confirmation from the full board next week, 13 News spoke to a couple of them on Monday about the challenges of treating mental health issues and what their goals are for the board.

"25 percent of people have a diagnosed mental health issue, so that's affecting 45-50 percent of our families in the county," Linda Sandquist, the Vice President of United Way and one of the seven nominees, says.

Sandquist argues everyone should have access to mental health services, but right now, everyone doesn't. It's one of the reasons she's eager to serve on the county's mental health board. So is Dick Kunnert, the former superintendent of Singer Mental Health Center.

Kunnert, who's been involved in mental health work and advocacy for over 50 years, says the average person doesn't understand the crisis in our area.

"Children under 12 are basically taken to the Chicago suburbs and the tragedy with that is in how they are carried," Kunnert explains. "They're strapped down to a gurney and taken in an ambulance."

Sandquist added another issue.

"People cannot get services," Sandquist says. "If you need services right now, you literally have to go wait in line at our community's largest mental health provider with your fingers crossed hoping you get in that day to see somebody."

And these two issues Kunnert and Sandquist bring up are just a couple of the concerns they want the board to address and tackle. Kunnert adds hiring case workers who can be out in the community interacting with people who have identifiable mental health issues would go a long way. He also says there's a need for a crisis response team. Those are his top priorities.

"The goal is to keep people out of jail, keep young people out of the detention center, and keep people unnecessarily out of emergency rooms," Kunnert explains.

But funding could be a challenge. Voters will decide on the March ballot whether to raise the sales tax point five percentage points to fund mental health services. If the referendum fails, Kunnert and Haney say the mental health board will have to rely on grant money. But grant money is never a guarantee.

And Kunnert says, realistically, the board can't fix all the mental health issues.

"What we can do is put a much better system in place to help more people, but let's not think 'woah, this is the end all,'" Kunnert says.

Back in 2012 when Singer Mental Health Center was defunded by the state, Kunnert says community partners met for one year to try and come up with a new system. They estimated it would take $7.6 million to treat mental health issues. The referendum would potentially bring in between $12-14 million, all of which would go into a fund directly managed by the mental health board.

Kunnert says fixing the mental health crisis in Winnebago County will take time, but he argues doing something is better than doing nothing.

Richard Bodee

Richard Bodee is a reporter at WREX. He joined the 13 WREX team in June 2019 after graduating from DePaul University with a Master’s degree in broadcast journalism.

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