The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Treatment Not Trauma: Brandon Johnson’s mental health plans

Lizzie Miller

After Chicago’s former mayor Rahm Emanuel shuttered half the City’s public mental health clinics in 2011, recent mayor Lori Lightfoot promised funds to reopen these clinics but instead funneled money into privately run mental health organizations. 

Six closed clinics later, Chicago residents continue to lack accessible mental health resources. Four of the closed clinics were in neighborhoods on the South Side.

When Mayor Brandon Johnson took office last April, the community organizer and former teacher vowed to reopen these clinics and establish the “Treatment Not Trauma” program as a strategy to aid Chicagoans facing mental health issues.

Treatment Not Trauma

Treatment Not Trauma seeks to reopen mental health clinics shuttered by previous administrations, and also advocates for a 24/7 mental health crisis hotline that would deploy mental health specialists, instead of police officers, to those battling a mental health crisis.

The 911 line receives 175 behavioral health-related calls a day in Chicago. 

Treatment Not Trauma was first introduced in the City Council by the 33rd Ward Ald. Rossana Rodríguez Sánchez in 2020, but Lightfoot rejected it , who instead opted for a co-responder model, which sends both police and mental health professionals to respond to mental health crises. 

Molly Brown, a DePaul psychology professor, said police are not sufficiently trained to respond to crisis situations involving people suffering a mental health emergency.

“We’ve seen tragedies locally and nationally where people facing mental health crises are being harmed and murdered by the police officers who aren’t equipped or trained to address people facing mental health distress,” Brown said. 

People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter, according to PBS. Brown believes that taking police out of the equation when responding to mental health-related crises would significantly decrease the likelihood of these tragedies.

Any Huamani, the Treatment Not Trauma organizer for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, points to the tragic death of Irene Chavez in Chicago in Dec. 2021 to explain why police shouldn’t be the responders to mental health-related crises. 

Chavez was a veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder and was arrested amid a mental health crisis on allegations of battery. Chavez attempted suicide in the 3rd District station and later died at the hospital.

Huamani says this shows how police are not properly equipped to recognize and respond to mental health crises.

“You just need someone to talk to at that moment and cops can’t do that, they can try, they’re just not trained to do that, to say the least,” Huamani said.

Brown says that if licensed counselors, therapists, EMTs and other mental health professionals respond to these types of crises without carrying a weapon like police officers, there is a significantly lower risk of harm. 

Johnson’s Policies: FY2024 Budget

Johnson and the embrace of the Treatment Not Trauma initiative brings to light an alternate approach not utilized by former mayors Emmanuel and Lightfoot. 

Rebecca Michel, a DePaul professor of counseling and special education, says the Johnson approach can strengthen the Chicago Police Department, despite the common misconception that Treatment Not Trauma will take resources away from the police.

“These initiatives are actually striving to bolster and support the police to be able to do what is really in their trained expertise…violent crimes, detective work. Leave the mental health crises to people who are trained in mental health,” Michel said.

Cassandra Firkins, a licensed clinical social worker and site director for the Kedzie Center, a community mental health organization, says she has spoken with police officers who have expressed gratitude for alternate response teams.

“Some of them are very much in support of (Treatment Not Trauma) because they said most of their calls have to do with mental health and domestic violence, and they said they have not received the education that a mental health professional has to respond in the best way,” Firkins said.

Mayor Johnson announced his “People’s Budget” for FY2024 Nov. 2023, which focused on investment in these programs. 

More than $66 million will be allocated to expanding Chicago’s Department of Public Health’s mental health staff working in public clinics and 911 response teams by 75%.

The City is also exploring the Community Alternative Policing Strategies program, a pilot program which brings police in collaboration with communities to solve neighborhood crime problems. 

Reopening of Clinics

The budget also makes it possible  for many mental health clinics to re-open across the City over the next four years.

Michel explains the importance of having a strong presence of accessible mental health clinics throughout Chicago.

“I think these community agencies provide such a spectrum of care for residents that when those are just shut down, then, unfortunately, people continue to have those mental health challenges but don’t have the treatment,” Michel said.

These clinics provide patients with case management, medication services and a variety of ongoing counseling, according to Michel.

Reopening public mental health clinics will also ensure that those who need care are receiving it in a timely manner, as Firkins points to the long wait times those without insurance face.

“Depending on where they want to go that wait can be two weeks, a month, and the most I’ve heard is six months,” Firkins said. “When someone is in crisis or finally ready to do therapy, timing is of the essence.”

Wider access to these clinics also guarantees free and accessible treatment for any Chicago resident, regardless of insurance status, says Firkins. Many Chicagoans who do not have insurance are subject to long wait times or significant out-of-pocket expenses to receive care.

A 2022 survey shows that about 75% of Chicagoans who had moderate or serious psychological distress said they were not taking medication or being treated for mental health or emotional conditions.

Mental health intersectionality 

Brown said that without proper access to mental health resources, people can experience disabling conditions that can intersect with other areas of their lives, such as their economic standing.

“Folks can fall into economic marginalization and poverty, and as a result of that, folks can fall into homelessness,” Brown said. 

21% of those experiencing homelessness also have a serious mental illness.

With the opportunity to expand mental health resources and divert police presence from certain crises, Brown said people may feel more inclined to seek treatment and prevent the threat of poverty and homelessness.

“If folks who are experiencing a crisis can get resources without the threat of harm or being policed for having a mental health crisis, that should increase people’s willingness to get help when they need it,” Brown said. 

Michel, the counseling professor, echoes the same sentiment, saying that ensuring equitable access to treatment may encourage those who have previously been skeptical of seeking mental health help to utilize these newfound resources. 

Brown also says that equal community investment throughout the City can decrease the likelihood of residents facing stress and trauma that stems from government neglect.

The lack of certain resources in disinvested neighborhoods in Chicago, such as grocery stores and job opportunities, has a significant mental health impact on residents, according to Brown. 

The University of Chicago found in a 2022 study that South Side residents rank mental health as the top area of concern for adults and children. 

With the majority of the shuttered clinics being located in the South Side, residents are left without another vital resource to their well-being.

Brown said access to mental health resources in schools increases the likelihood of early intervention.

“Having access to mental health screenings and mental health interventions in schools for students that are at greater risk of developing mental health concerns could be a really great strategy to getting treatment and intervention early,” Brown said.

Michel said Johnson’s dedication to Treatment Not Trauma mental health initiatives is a great way to rebuild after Emmanuel’s administration.

“I think that there is a significant opportunity for Chicago to really build on the ground up, focusing on preventative mental health services and responding with appropriate care, instead of with force,” Michel said. 

Brown said the mental health conversation must continue for real change to occur.

“We need to talk about mental health…if we’re talking about it, more people are going to be able to seek help if it’s available,” Brown said.

Editor’s note: the updated version of this story corrects the spelling of Ani Huamani to Any Huamani.

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