Horace Howard said his life took a turn for the worse in 2012, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed the public mental health clinic in his neighborhood, as part an effort to consolidate the city’s 12 clinics into six.
The Woodlawn resident fell back into alcohol and drug abuse to self-medicate his bipolar disorder. He said it was the same erratic behavior that led him to lose his job as a substitute teacher for Chicago Public Schools, years before he was diagnosed with his mental illness.
Howard was among about two dozen people who protested mental health care cuts Tuesday in the lobby outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall.
Today, Howard said his life is back on track. He’s enrolled in a graduate program at Governors State University and he sees a psychiatrist with Heartland Health Centers once every three months. Howard said, though he was able to find something that works for him, not everyone gets so lucky.
“There are many people out here who don’t even know to get to Heartland,” said Howard, talking about the people who still seek help from the remaining public mental health clinics. He said for a while he tried to get counseling from a different public clinic run by the city but both his psychiatrists were cut in a span of six months.
Howard is part of an organization called the Mental Health Movement, which organized the rally. Some held trash bags filled with used medication and testimonies from Chicagoans struggling with mental health issues. Others prayed, sang, or told stories.
N’Donna Carter, who helped organize the protest, said she sees the Emanuel administration’s policies as the cause of Chicago’s current mental health crisis.
“We had over 400 suicides the year our public mental health clinics closed,” said Carter. “Things are not getting better.”
Previous reporting by WBEZ showed startling increases in emergency room visits for mental health. The biggest jump was in 2012, the same year that Howard’s bipolar disorder treatment was interrupted by citywide clinic closings. Another analysis revealed that the most mental health related 911 calls came from districts with the fewest mental health services. Both examples show how the government is paying for Chicago’s fraying mental health safety net.
Carter said her organization wants the city to hire more psychiatrists and provide mental health education, especially to communities with high crime rates.
The Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner, Dr. Julie Morita, said the City has made significant improvements to its overall mental health infrastructure.
A spokesman for the city said the department of public health says the city has invested $1.5 million in community psychiatry since 2012 and millions more on mental health services for kids and for people affected by homicides and substance abuse.
Despite those investments, Howard said he thinks what would help him and the community the most is reopening the six public clinics that closed a few years ago.
Alissa Zhu is a WBEZ news intern. Follow her @AlissaZhu.