Cook County voted the message loud and clear on Tuesday. Funding mental health services should be a priority for state lawmakers.
An advisory referendum to increase funding passed by a resounding 86 percent, according to unofficial election results posted by The Chicago Tribune. The measure garnered support from more than 1 million out of 1.2 million votes.
The challenge now lies in triggering state action from county opinion.
Cook County Board of Commissioners President Toni Preckwinkle said the commissioners, who sponsored the referendum, are “gratified by the results” of yesterday’s vote. The funding could help restore more mental health clinics and other services.
“Mental illness affects people of all ages, races, genders and economic status,” Preckwinkle said. “Clearly, the voters of Cook County agree that state funding of mental health services for our residents should be a priority, and we encourage the General Assembly to consider the results of this referendum as they move forward.”
Six Cook County clinics closed their doors in 2012. Increased funds could also assist the estimated 3,000 mentally ill inmates housed in the Cook County Jail, 17th District Commissioner Liz Gorman said.
“We’ll sit down with the policy people and see what’s out there in the budgets,” Gorman said. “As county commissioner, seeing how much money the taxpayers are spending on housing [people with mental illness] in our jails, it’s ridiculous.”
An estimated 25-30 percent of Cook County Jail inmates suffer from mental illness. Incarcerated mainly for nonviolent offenses, most of these individuals would be “far better served by treatment rather than incarceration,” according to Sheriff Tom Dart.
A lack of state-derived support for treatment services has curbed any real solution. But the mental health referendum, if policymakers take it seriously, could change this course of action.
“Cook County voters responded to something they know in their guts—that there isn’t enough mental health funding,” said Lora Thomas, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Illinois. “I think they are saying that they’re willing to pay for it. It provides some confidence that the voters will be there and cover the backs of their senators and representatives as they make these difficult [budget] decisions.”
The Illinois Office of Management and Budget was not available for comment.