Cheryl Potts, newly appointed chief of Oak Park Township’s Community Mental Health Board, comes to the work with a personal mental health disorder and the firsthand pain of having lost a brother to suicide at a time, 20 years back, when the stigma of mental illness was more intense than even today.
A 20-plus year career in nonprofit work dating back to college at DePaul University brought Potts, a 15-year Oak Park, to the leadership of the township board. As its executive director, Potts replaces Lisa DeVivo, who held the role for 13 years and retired in October.
Potts most recently served as executive director at The Kennedy Forum Illinois. She developed her interest in nonprofit work in college, where she volunteered at the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project and at Chicago House. After graduating from DePaul with a degree in non-profit business management, she started her career at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
Her focus on mental health advocacy began with a tragedy. In 1999, her brother died by suicide after struggling with alcoholism. According to Potts, his death was largely caused by his reticence to seek treatment out of embarrassment and fear of potential stigma. As a result, Potts, who herself struggles with a mental health disorder, felt compelled to dedicate her career to ending the stigma and discrimination often surrounding mental health and substance use disorders, as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Acts of stigma do not have to be overt or egregious; sometimes they are subtle.” Potts said. “Regardless, they are still hurtful, and they hold us back. Mental health is like physical health, we all have it. Sometimes people feel healthy and sometimes we feel unhealthy, and some people have more serious disorders that require ongoing care, but regardless, we all have mental health.”
Potts is a strong advocate of openly sharing her own mental health challenges and cites her exposure to others who “told their story” as extremely motivating her as she continued her career of advocacy. She also stresses the importance of self-care, using working out and hiking to stay healthy both physically and mentally.
As a long-time Oak Parker, Potts is familiar with the community and eager to continue the legacy of her predecessor. One area in particular she seeks to improve on is access to mental health and substance use treatment resources for students in Oak Park public schools. The Illinois Youth Survey consistently reveals that large percentages of Oak Park teenagers partake in both general alcohol use and binge drinking. To address this situation, the mental health board recently partnered with Oak Park and River Forest High School and River Forest Mental Health Services to, according to Potts, “fund in-depth substance use assessments and service referrals for students who demonstrate a higher-level need for treatment.”
Potts is also passionate about a partnership with DePaul University called the Mindful Middle Schoolers program. This program, which provides social emotional and behavioral healthcare resources for Oak Park’s middle schoolers, recently saw an increase in school care coordinators.
The mental health board is a branch of Oak Park Township. According to a press release, its purpose is “to assist in planning, developing, coordinating, evaluating, and funding mental health services in Oak Park.”