Robin Williams’ recent passing is a powerful reminder of the gravity of mental illness and the urgency of improving the quality of, and access to, mental health care.
While Williams’ death rightfully dominated the headlines briefly, it cannot be forgotten that over 35,000 Americans take their own lives every year, and more than 700,000 people are rushed to emergency rooms for self-inflicted injuries. At the same time, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from untreated or undertreated mental illness. Proper funding for mental health treatment cannot wait.
Illinois must reverse its trend of drastically slashing mental health-care funding, effectively turning its back on its own citizens in dire need of support and treatment. Illinois wrongly cut its mental health-care budget by $187 million, from 2009-2012 alone. Despite the tireless work of mental health advocates throughout our communities, the General Assembly has treated mental health care as an afterthought that can be easily tossed aside. Many clinics that relied on state funding have closed and existing clinics face a demand for services that greatly exceeds their capacity.
In addition to being a moral imperative, improving mental health care in Illinois can save the state an enormous amount of money. The drastic mental health cuts have significantly contributed to the Cook County Jail becoming the largest mental health care facility in Illinois. Each citizen with mental health needs in the Cook County Jail costs taxpayers about $190 per day. With more than 2,000 mentally ill inmates, the cost is approximately $380,000 per day, or $138.7 million per year. Treating these citizens properly in community mental health-care clinics costs far less and is a far more appropriate setting for effective, long-term support and treatment.
We must send a message to the Illinois legislature that mental health care is a major priority. This fall, citizens across the state will have the opportunity to vote on a resolution stating, “Shall the General Assembly of the State of Illinois appropriate additional funds to provide necessary mental health services for the people of the State of Illinois?”
Strong support for this resolution is vital to pressure the General Assembly to finally increase mental health care funding — a long-overdue lifeline for our struggling mental health care system after years of drastic budget cuts.
While compelling the General Assembly to act is a political challenge, mental health issues are indiscriminate across each strata of society. No matter our race, wealth, religion, or political party, mental health affects us all.
Ensuring that each member of our community can access effective mental health treatment will save lives. Each tragic death linked to mental illness reminds us that the urgency of now compels us to act. Please stand with my campaign and mental health-care advocates across Illinois in voting in favor of a ballot resolution this fall demanding proper state funding for mental health treatment programs in our communities.
Richard Boykin is the Democratic nominee for Cook County Commissioner, 1st District.