North River Mental Health Center to City of Chicago: Where’s our psychiatrist?

Video by Rachel White | Text by Adrienne Hurst

Patients and advocates of the North River Mental Health Center gathered at the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) Wednesday to urge officials to fill the center’s vacant psychiatrist position. The center has not had a psychiatrist on staff since July 31, leaving patients without crucial medication management, advocates said.

“People are scared, so they’re cutting their medications in half” to make them last longer, said Becky Brasfield of the North River Consumer Council, an organization led by patients of the clinic. “We want answers for how the consumers are supposed to proceed with no medication” and CDPH Commissioner Bechara Choucair’s long-term plan for hiring a psychiatrist at the center.

North River Consumer Council members leave the Chicago Department of Public Health office
Members of the North River Consumer Council file out of the Chicago Department of Public Health office. Adrienne Hurst/MEDILL

Dr. Sylvia Santos, the only staff psychiatrist at North River, retired on July 31. A nationwide shortage of qualified psychiatrists has made it difficult to find a replacement, according to a letter from Choucair to the Consumer Council dated Oct. 20.

“CDPH has posted psychiatry positions repeatedly and done community outreach to help recruit candidates. Unfortunately, these efforts have not resulted in a single psychiatrist applying for the position,” Couchair wrote to the Consumer Council on Oct. 7.

CDPH had been looking for a temporary replacement to start in November. No permanent doctor has been found as of Thursday, according to North River staff. Temporary psychiatrists have come in on occasion.

Becky Brasfield speaks to the crowd.
Becky Brasfield (center) speaks to the crowd of mental health advocates as they approach the Chicago Department of Public Health office. Photo by Kari Lydersen

But with no psychiatrist on staff, patients at North River are running out of the medications that help keep them stable and healthy, council members said.

“What comes with that are withdrawal symptoms—which can be absolutely horrible—and then the return of their psychiatric symptoms, which can include acting out or depression,” Brasfield said. “What I’m hoping is that someone doesn’t end up hospitalized or in jail.”

The Consumer Council hoped to express these concerns to Choucair during Wednesday’s visit, but CDPH Director of Public Affairs Brian Richardson asked the advocates to leave the office. He advised advocates to set up a meeting by phone or email.

“The City of Chicago remains committed to providing residents with access to quality mental health services,” Richardson said in a CDPH email statement to Medill Reports. “Last month, we increased the hourly rate for city-employed psychiatrists to be more aligned with industry standards. We hope this move will help attract qualified candidates for psychiatrist vacancies, as well as maintain our current talent.”

The advocates continued by bus to City Hall after leaving the CDPH office. There, they spoke with Chloe Rasmas, a press aide for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Rasmas assured the group that she would communicate their concerns to CDPH. She was not available for comment.

Becky Brasfield hands a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's representative. Photo by Kari Lydersen
Brasfield hands a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s representative. Photo by Kari Lydersen

Some patients have managed to receive emergency prescriptions from their primary care physicians, according to Brasfield. Council member Maria Sanchez said she is on her last refill. She said she considers herself fortunate to take a low-dose prescription, which will lead to less-intense withdrawal symptoms if abruptly stopped.

Not all are so lucky, she said. “My friend [at the clinic], when she doesn’t take her medication, her symptoms change. It’s very hard for her.”

Common symptoms of withdrawal from psychiatric medications include dizziness, fatigue, nausea and headache. More severe symptoms can result in thoughts of suicide and the resurgence of depression and anxiety.

“There’s no solution,” Brasfield said. “Even if you can get to another mental health clinic, you’re going to be waiting three or four months.”

Mental health advocates left the mayor’s office Wednesday afternoon with more questions than answers.

“The commissioner said [he hasn’t] gotten any applicants. Is the Department of Public Health so unpalatable to work at that they can’t get anyone to apply?” asked Michael Snedeker, director of the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, who was also present. “Is it that the city has created such an unstable environment—closing centers, cutting services and all these things—that people don’t view it as an appealing place to work?”

Brasfield chalked it up to the city’s failure to understand mental health care. She said she was disheartened, but unsurprised, by the city’s response to Wednesday’s visit.

“We’re going to follow up with these measures,” she said. “We’re going to follow up with our consumers who have really been hurt today when just trying to communicate their concerns and get their mental health needs met.”