Illinois needs to get smarter as it builds its behavioral health infrastructure

Governor JB Pritzker said last week that the state is building “the best behavioral health system in the nation” while announcing the creation of the Behavioral Health Workforce Education Center.

It was pretty daring to say. So my collaborator Isabel Miller and I asked a few follow-up questions: How long will this take and how much will it cost?

A spokesman’s response was somewhat overwhelming: “Under the leadership of Governor Pritzker, the state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in rebuilding our behavioral health infrastructure, and the governor is committed to continuing these important investments year after year to build the best system in the world.” build nation. Illinois has moved up the national rankings by putting our people first, and we are on the right track as we continue the generational shift. With our statewide partnerships and continued investments, Illinois will soon serve as the national standard for a behavioral health system that prioritizes workers and provides the best possible care to those who need it.”

That obviously didn’t answer any of our questions. And no brownie points for brevity either. I’m sorry you had to read it.

The background information the governor’s office sent about the administration’s progress also didn’t quite go with the governor’s flowery rhetoric.

Recent national rankings released by Mental Health America, a group founded more than a century ago, show that Illinois has moved up from 11th place in 2018 to 9th place this year. An overall ranking of 1-13, according to the organization, “demonstrates a lower prevalence of mental illness and higher access to medical care.”

However, the state adult ranking actually slipped from 8th to 9th during this period, and the youth ranking remained at 13th, despite hundreds of millions of additional dollars spent on mental health initiatives since the beginning of 2019.

Still, a key stakeholder praised the governor’s plan to use the new Behavioral Health Workforce Education Center to lead the transformation of the long-troubled Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in deep south Illinois.

Equip for Equality released an investigative report back in 2005 that documented numerous horrors in Choate. The group called for the facility to be closed at the time. “Nearly two decades later,” the group claimed via press release last week, “increased surveillance activity shows little has changed.”

The group claims that Choate residents continue to be “disconnected” from their community “without receiving the necessary services to actually sort out why they ended up there.” Residents, the group said, remain “fearful of staff and colleagues and afraid of retaliation for reporting abuse by staff.”

“A lot of the recent news is about incidents that happened a year or more ago,” said Stacey Aschemann, vice president of Equip for Equality, which oversees conditions in Choate. “Based on our most recent monitoring, we can say without a doubt that these are ongoing issues.”

So why did it take so long for the state to act? The governor told reporters the state simply didn’t have the financial resources to do enough to address the problem. The new Behavioral Health Workforce Workforce Training Center has been in the works for five years and will hopefully help the state increase the workforce enough to address the issues not just in Choate but statewide. With more tax revenue, the state can get things under control.

And make no mistake, the problems are serious, despite what national rankings may show. According to a report last week by Capitol News Illinois, Lee Enterprises and ProPublica Illinois, 15,000 people are currently on a waiting list for community-based intellectual and developmental mediation. Incidentally, these outlets’ coverage of Choate has fueled recent intense interest in the facility’s many problems and helped spur management action, a fact Pritzker himself has acknowledged.

There are of course local concerns about changes at Choate. Senator Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro), representing the area, claimed the key issue is facility management (a good point) and said she’s opposed to moving residents out of the facility (not so well). AFSCME is naturally concerned about the future of its members at Choate.

The bottom line is that the state simply has to become smarter. These problems have existed for decades and decades, but the people of Choate and thousands of others across the state deserve care and support, not physical abuse and neglect. Those responsible have to be better, so this attempt to bring new workers into the system and keep them there must not fail.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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