Evanston Mental Health Task Force members are calling on the City Council to increase the federal relief dollars they said are currently allocated for mental health, describing a system under increased need because of COVID-19.
At the November 1 council meeting, members of the task force asked the council to reconsider city staff’s recommendation to allocate $4 million in American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds for social services, out of the $43 million in ARPA funds anticipated to be coming to the city.
The funds could go toward education and prevention, as well as reinforcing the city crisis infrastructure.
“Mental health services are [in] extremely high demand right now,” Christine Somervill, Director of Programs at the Cook County North Suburban affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and co-chair of the city’s Mental Health Task Force, told council members at their November 1 meeting. “Therapy Services for non-PPO [Preferred Provider Organization] people are almost nonexistent in Evanston. Providers that take Medicaid are few and far between in Evanston.
“There are almost 30,000 Evanston households with incomes under $50,000,” Somervill said. “For these families, the cost of mental health care puts it out of reach. Residents of color are particularly vulnerable and disproportionately struggling due to the pandemic. The pandemic didn’t just shine a light on the struggles so many people have, it exacerbated them, and we are going to have infrastructure breaking under the weight of a tremendous need.”
Patti Capouch, another task force member and Executive Director of Impact Behavioral Health Partners, said that mental health issues were among the top concerns raised by community members in the roundtable discussions and town hall meetings regarding ARPA funding that were convened by the city and the Evanston Community Foundation over the past two months.
“This should come to as no surprise to anyone here who has followed the budget service process of the past several years, where mental health funding has consistently been listed as the top priority of Evanston residents,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the city’s medically and socially vulnerable populations, with the loss of employment, loss of housing, food insecurity, and reduced access to essential medical and social services. And in this time, where social services are most needed, many of our organizations are facing dwindling resources despite increasing client needs.
“We believe offering those who may be experiencing a mental health crisis a place to go would not only be a benefit to the client seeking services, but it would free up members of our over extended police force from having them having to act as mental health clinicians.”
Advocates urge more services for children
Two other task force members who work with children also addressed the need for more services.
Alison Stoll, a child and family therapist with the Children’s Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County, a group that provides services to children and families that have experienced abuse, neglect or trauma of some sort, spoke of the need for services to treat intergenerational trauma.
A landmark study dating back to 1997 that involved the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “adversity experienced early in life has a tremendous impact on later functioning of an individual,” she told council members.
Stoll said that adverse childhood experiences have been linked to chronic health problems, mental illness and substance abuse problems in adulthood.
“The cost on communities of ignoring the adversity faced early in life only grows exponentially,” she said.
“In my line of work, I see the cost of ignoring mental health issues from one generation to the next,” Stoll said.“ And I’m often faced with helping not only children heal, but parents heal … because the trauma of previous generations that has been left open and festers.”
Cindy Castro, manager of the outpatient behavioral health clinic at Saint Francis Hospital, and also a member of the task force, spoke of the demand on the system.
“Many of us are having difficulty with our resources,” she told council members. “Many agencies have a growing waitlist.” For example, she said, Trilogy and Thresholds, behavioral health care agencies in the area, have both doubled the number of therapists they have.
“This does not even cover those individuals that do not have insurance or are not able to pay out-of-pocket fees,” she said. “This also does not touch on the Spanish-speaking population, and the lack of Spanish-speaking counselors that can provide services at low rates or even for free.”
“We’re all experiencing limited staff availability, and are having difficulty filling staff vacancies due to not being able to keep up with the escalating market pay for counselors. So what do I tell the resident that is calling up asking that they need to be seen ASAP because they do not know what else to do? What do I tell the Spanish-speaking mom who has a teen that’s refusing to go to school because of their social anxiety and fear of COVID that has only increased during the full year of remote learning, and that the services that she currently needs are only outside of Evanston?
“The need to eliminate barriers for our community is tremendous,” she said.
Allie Harned, a task force member, and districtwide social worker in District 65 schools, told Council members “your decisions actually can make a difference in housed or unhoused, fed or unfed, well or unwell – and indeed, unfortunately, between life and death.”
In District 65, Harned said, she and her mental health and educator colleagues support students who are dealing with a wide variety of issues.
“We have hundreds of students who are registered as homeless,” she said. “We have children grieving the loss of loved ones due to COVID and whose lives have been altered drastically due to the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic.”
“Something that has been a challenge for years is a lack of personal hospitalization or hospitalization options for children in Evanston,” Harned told council members. “If a child needs inpatient or outpatient intensive mental health treatment, they have to go at least 45 minutes away every day in the case of outpatient care, which usually requires transportation and [requires] flexibility for the parents.
“This is literally just impossible for some families to do,” she said. “So the child remains remains undertreated. And the family remains under deep stress.”
Council members didn’t directly respond to the task force members’ comments, which were made during the citizen comment portion of the November 1 City Council meeting.
In a memo to council members, Sara Flax, the city’s Housing & Grants Administrator, outlined officials’ previous discussions of ARPA funds and their potential for allocation.
“All ARPA spending will come before the City Council for approval with individual resolutions and contracts,” Flax noted.
Council member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said, “I have some frustration with the allocation of $7 million for economic development and $4 million for social services.”
She acknowledged the efforts the city has made in the past to enable nonprofits to access sources of funding not previously available.
“But, you know, really, all of the public comment we’ve had tonight has been from our social service community,” she said. “And we’ve talked about having this transparent, open process. But you know, we still haven’t allocated more money for that.”
She said the memo from staff updating the status of ARPA requests, “is a bit more helpful as we continue to talk about how we can spend on ARPA funding.”
Council member Fleming, who previously had urged an increase in ARPA funding for social services, said she would “love for us at the council … to kind of prioritize what we think is important.”
“I mean, we all talk about mental health,” she said, “but as I’m trying to explain to my residents who have needs that we have not yet yet addressed, it’s getting a little bit difficult, because we as a council haven’t kind of prioritized what the needs are.”
According to Google, there are 28,000 households and 74,000 people in Evanston. It seems doubtful that there are 30,000 households with incomes below $50,000 as claimed. Before advocating for lots of money, it would be nice to have some basic facts correct.
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