Cook County voters to weigh in on mental health funding

By Adrienne Hurst

Ballot box
Voters at the ballot box Tuesday will voice their opinions on Illinois’ mental health cutbacks. Photo credit: Keith Bacongco / Flickr

Tuesday’s advisory referendum to increase mental health care funding is unfortunately a “well-kept secret,” according to Lora Thomas, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Illinois. It’s tucked away among 47 others on the Cook County ballot. As part of the general election ballot, Cook County voters will have the chance to tell policymakers whether they think funding should be increased.

Such funding could help restore more mental health clinics and other services. County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and all 17 board commissioners co-sponsored the county referendum.

“There’s no doubt that Springfield faces tough financial choices; however, we encourage the General Assembly to return to fully funding mental health services for the people of our state,” Preckwinkle stated in a press release.

Seal of Cook County Illinois
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle co-sponsored the mental health referendum. “Mental health is critical to the well-being and vitality of our families, businesses and communities,” she said in a press release. Image credit: cookcountyil.gov

The non-binding advisory referendum, meant to offer ammunition for future budget decisions on mental health, asks voters: “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?”

Convincing the state to rebuild their mental health budget may prove difficult, however.

“The lack of mental health services in general is having unintended consequences,” said Heather O’Donnell, vice president of public policy and advocacy for Thresholds, the oldest provider for mental health services in Chicago. “What makes it so challenging to beef up is that so many pieces of it are funded at different levels of government.”

Illinois ranks among the top five states in the nation for mental health care cuts that have shuttered numerous clinics, according to a NAMI report issued in 2011. These programs experienced $187 million in budget cuts between 2009 and 2012.

In the wake of six of Chicago’s 12 mental health care facilities shutting their doors two years ago, Illinois’ actions have sparked contentious debate. Still, the likelihood of the referendum passing is unclear.

“One of my concerns is that there are a lot of referendums on the ballot, so this can get lost,” Thomas said. Whether voters say yes or no, the results of the referendum will help guide policymakers in their decisions regarding mental health care funding, she said.

“I certainly hope it passes,” O’Donnell said. “The state needs to fund a stronger mental health safety net … and now is really the time to improve the services and service capacity.”

Should the referendum pass on Nov. 4, any effects it has will remain the responsibility of Illinois policymakers. But the first step right now is in the hands of Cook County voters.