SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Mental health and substance abuse treatments are critical for many Americans. However, Illinois state lawmakers know many low-income communities lack access to these resources. They hope to find a solution quickly.
Legislators heard from some of Illinois’ top experts in mental health and substance abuse prevention Monday morning. Each of the speakers emphasized these issues have been relevant for decades, and it’s well past time to respond.
“The state has never invested in the right kinds of treatment models nor sufficient resources to prevent literally a lifetime of tragedy for people,” said Heather O’Donnell.
The Vice President of Public Policy and Advocacy for Thresholds says jails and prisons have too often become defacto mental health and substance abuse facilities. O’Donnell noted those aren’t therapeutic environments and it’s challenging to prevent relapse.
Many testifying before the Senate joint committee explained the answers to these issues are already out there. But, they said the state should commit to providing help to everyone in need. One of the “answers” is the Early Mental Health and Addictions Treatment Act signed into law in 2018. However, advocates say state agencies haven’t implemented the law.
Resources to combat addiction
Heartland Alliance says the opioid crisis has spanned at least 20 years and the country has seen five times more overdose deaths than five years ago. Dann Rabbitt, Senior Manager of Health Policy, says 2,200 Illinoisans died of an overdose just last year and the racial disparities are spiking.
“Most of those fatalities are men between 35-65. Black Illinoisans are twice as likely to die as their white counterparts. That’s not how it is in other states,” Rabbitt explained. “This is our unique challenge to address.”
He said overdose prevention with targeted distribution of naloxone is a great step toward tackling the crisis. Rabbitt’s colleague Anthony Strong struggled with addiction for years before turning the corner. Now, as a Peer Recovery Specialist with Heartland, Strong stressed anyone can turn around with the right resources.
“If we continue in this society to move forward but leave a subset of people behind, then it doesn’t say a whole lot of good things about me and how I’m living my life,” Strong said.
Structural racism in healthcare
Dr. Rashad Saafir, President of Bobby E. Wright Behavioral Health Center, stressed structural racism reduces access to healthcare and impacts the quality of life for many.
“Mental health disorders like depression have been normalized within poor underserved communities,” Saafir said. “It has become a way of life for people who don’t realize that they’re suffering from a treatable condition.”
The experts explained cultural stigma around mental health also limits access to care. That’s why they support community-based access for any proposals moving forward.
“Our ability to divert them from deep end systems like emergency rooms and the criminal justice system are key to keeping not only the cost of care low but also keeping persons engaged and building rapport in their communities of choice,” said Joel Johnson, President of the Human Resources Development Institute.
Committee Chair Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) said the state has to address the opioid crisis thoroughly.
“We are going to have to at some point, and hopefully really soon, address these disparity issues with the governor’s office to see what can be done about it. How do we address these issues,” Hunter asked. “If we can get some of these bills passed and if the state can implement some of these initiatives, I believe that we’ll be more on our way. “