City to close five mental health centers

A group of concerned citizens and community leaders from the Northwest Side met today to try and stop the closing of their local mental health provider, North River Mental Health Center.

Members of the group Coalition to Save our Mental Health Centers say they were shocked to find out that North River is set to close its doors at the end of the month.

“It’s absolutely appaling to find out that the center is closing,” says Linda Forbes, pastor of Sauganash Community Church. “Where are the families going to go that need care? We are not going to be quiet while this happens.”

The Coalition held a press conference at City Hall today, presenting a representative from the Mayor’s office with letters from community members asking him not to close the Center.

North River is just one of five centers around the city that will be closed this year by the Chicago Department of Public Health. The department will consolidate these centers into the seven remaining centers that are spread across the city on Feb. 1.

Dr. Terry Mason, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health, says the move is in response to budget cuts, most notably a $1.2 million cut from the state. He says the cuts have meant reducing the number of staff, and as a result, resources have been spread very thin across the city’s 12 centers.

“Frankly, that’s a disservice to the people who need service,” says Dr. Terry Mason, head of the Department of Public Health. “Right now we have a patchwork situation that makes no sense. What we’re doing will result in care that is consistent and complete.”

Patients at North River can go to one of the seven remaining centers when North River closes, such as Northtown Mental Health Center in Roger’s Park or Northwest Mental Health Center in Logan Square.

“We will not drop any of our patients,” says Tim Hadac, spokesperson for the Department of Public Health. “All patients are being welcomed at the remaining CDPH clinics, if they choose.”

However, organizers in North River’s surrounding community say asking the center’s 450 severely mentally ill patients to travel across the city for services is nearly impossible. 

“It’s gonna take us three hours at least,” says Lourdes Adrianzen, a patient at North River who lives in Kilbourn Park. “I have to take the bus to the red line. It would take me an hour and a half just to get there.”

Forbes says many patients are depressed and anxious about the centers' closing. She says one patient committed suicide after learning that services would be taken away.

“We want to care for people in the community,” says Forbes. “And now it seems like people’s voices don’t matter.”

The group met today with Alderman William Banks (D-36) who says he’s talking to city officials and trying to set up hearings to keep North River open.

Banks says the city should be focusing more on serving the needs of the mentally ill.

“We seem to be involved in more glamorous battles these days, and we forget about those people who need our help,” says Banks.

Banks says the health department should never have made the decision to close North River, because the city council passed a resolution in 2006 that put a moratorium on the closing of any city mental health center.

“The health department of the city of Chicago has absolutely maintained a deaf ear to this problem,” says Banks. “It’s done nothing to alleviate problems.”

Banks and the organizers say the looming closings are especially confusing given that the group passed a referendum on the November ballot, asking for a tax increase in surrounding communities to fully fund North River, which passed with 71 percent of the vote.

Forbes says the city has money, but it is choosing not to spend it on the mentally ill.

“How can Chicago afford to have the 2016 Olympics if we cannot afford to help the needy and the mentally ill?” she says. “How can we dare to present ours as a first rate city and give third or fifth rate care to the citizens?” 

But Department of Public Health officials say the issue of mental health funding isn’t a problem at the city level – it’s a battle that’s been waging for years on the national stage, for more federal funding.

“For decades, mental health care has long been neglected in our nation’s capital---treated like a poor and unwanted cousin,” says Mason. “I am hopeful that with a new President and a new Congress firmly committed to fully-funded health care reform, in 2009 we will at long last see movement in the right direction.”

The five sites set to close are:

- Back of the Yards, 4313 S. Ashland Ave.
- Beverly-Morgan Park, 1987 W. 111th St.
- Greater Grand, 4314 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
- North River, 5801 N. Pulaski Rd.
- Woodlawn, 6337 S. Woodlawn Ave.

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.