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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

$8 Million City Plan Expands Access To Mental Health Care In West Side Neighborhoods

In communities of color, there is tremendous need for help for people struggling with trauma and addiction, one provider said. "A lot of that comes from the underlying social challenges we have in those communities."

The main building of the Lawndale Christian Health Center.
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WEST SIDE — Increased funding from the city will help West Side health providers offer more mental health care to residents.

The funding — which adds up to $8 million spread across 32 organizations — is aimed at creating a safety net of mental health services to make sure all residents have equitable access to care regardless of their ability to pay.

The focus on equity in mental health treatment is essential, said Jesse Tejeda of Healthcare Alternative Systems, one of the groups that will receive funding. In communities of color, there is tremendous need for help for people struggling with trauma and addiction.

“A lot of that comes from the underlying social challenges we have in those communities, whether it’s unemployment, food deserts, ongoing violence or generational trauma. To add to that is a lack of access to quality mental health service,” Tejeda said.

People shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhoods to get the treatment they need to manage mental illness and addiction, Tejeda said. The city’s grant will help Healthcare Alternative Systems bridge those gaps and improve service for uninsured people, who comprise about 30 percent of the group’s patients, he said.

The organization is a partner on the West Side Heroin and Opioid Taskforce, and the new funding will help the organization go beyond substance abuse treatment to address underlying mental illness, Tejeda said.

Other West Side mental health organizations awarded the grants include Habilitative Systems, the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center, BUILD Chicago and Lawndale Christian Health Center.

An equity lens on tackling addiction and mental illness is critical because these issues are prevalent on the West Side due to policies rooted in racism, said Habilitative CEO Donald Dew.

Many people in the area have suffered from a lack of education, hunger, joblessness, street violence and generational trauma that has left them beaten down, Dew said.

“We don’t want to [blame] the victim for the circumstances they’re in. They gotta realize there have been intentional efforts to keep people in this depressed state,” Dew said. “It is so important to understand that the pain that people are feeling and have been feeling for generations is really real.”

Lawndale Christian Health Center will use the grant to hire mental health providers to improve access to individual therapy and will help train staff to offer “brief interventions” when physicians identify a person who could need mental health support.

The grant will also allow the health center to strengthen its partnership with I Am Able and will fund therapists and other staff at the trauma-informed community group in North Lawndale.

“It’s sort of the public health approach to mental health: Give as many services as we can to as many people and make them as accessible as possible,” said Alyssa Sianghio, of Lawndale Christian.

Lawndale Christian Health Center will also bring expanded mental health services to several offsite clinics by hiring a full-time psychiatrist. The psychiatrist will support patients with severe mental illness at the health center and will serve patients at West Side homeless shelters.

“Psychiatry is a is a very difficult service to access for a lot of low-income patients across the West Side. It’s very in-demand,” she said. “It’s a very exciting opportunity for us to look at psychiatry.”

Sinai Health System will use the funds to improve access to therapy, social service, outreach and psychiatry services at its North Lawndale hospital, as well as at three satellite clinics in Lawndale, Grand Boulevard and West Englewood.

Bringing behavioral health services to the primary care clinics will give patients new points of entry for mental health treatment that can be coupled with more routine medical care, said Eric Lenzo, head of behavioral health at the hospital.

As much as 45 percent of Sinai patients have a mental or substance-use issue that co-occurs with the medical issues for which they seek treatment, Lenzo said. But too often, mental illness get “kicked down the line” instead of being handled in conjunction with other health issues.

“The ability to streamline that for our population is just going to get more people into the care that they need quicker in the most efficient way and with the least burden for the patient,” Lenzo said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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