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Mental Health Disparities Endanger Chicagoâs Youth

Protesters outside the Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic at 63rd and Woodlawn

In the first 12 weeks of 2013, there have been 57 gun-related homicides in Chicago; Twelve of those victims were 18 years old or under, according to an analysis of preliminary crime data by Red Eye, a publication of the Chicago Tribune newspaper.  Though the city has landed at the epicenter of the national debate over gun violence, the escalating numbers of Black and Latino youth killed have not received the same amount of attention as the victims of mass shootings in Colorado or Connecticut. Worse, while there has been a national outcry for increased access to mental health treatment in the wake of the Aurora and Newtown shootings, Chicago (whose gun-violence murder rate last year was the equivalent of "a 'Newtown,' [massacre] every four months"), has seen a steady decrease in funding to mental health programs.

“From 2009 to 2012, state leaders cut roughly $187 million from state-sponsored programs,” according to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That’s just over thirty percent of its mental health budget.  Today, Illinois “has the dubious distinction” of ranking third in the nation when it comes to states with the highest dollar amounts cut from mental health programs. Further,  six of Chicago's twelve mental health care facilities have been closed down by the state, including facilities in the heart of the city's Black community on the South Side. 

One such facility, the pioneering South Side Community Mental Health Council, was shut down in August 2012 after 37 years. The founding president of this community clinic, psychiatrist and University of Illinois at Chicago professor. Dr. Carl C. Bell, lamented the state's mental health budget cuts to EBONY.com, noting that the situation for young Blacks today is getting "even worse" when compounded with Chicago's impending school closures. 

Just last month, Chicago Public Schools announced that fifty-four schools be closed and 30,000 students be displaced. Ninety percent of those students will be Black. Many parents fear the longer walks to new schools will expose children to more violence.  

“Who will teach these young men conflict resolution skills?” asked Dr. Bell, one of the nation's  leading experts on race, community mental health and violence . “Social workers could do that—but not if they are laid off.”

Historically, "the highest recidivism rate for the mentally ill in the state [of Illinois] was among young African-American males living on the South Side of Chicago," according to the Chicago-based Human Resources Development Institute, which targets mental health care services for African-Americans, the disabled and those with criminal records. Without access to treatment, the recidivism rate—especially among young Black men—is not likely to decrease. 

But Chicago's mentally ill are not only suffering from waning access to health care facilities, they're also the targets of new anti-crime legislation. The state's newly proposed Prohibited Persons' Enforcement Act, for example, will require “all mental health providers [including private physicians] to report people who pose a risk to themselves, others and their community". These stipulations, mental health advocates say, serve only to further stigmatize mental illness.  This is especially troubling at a time when mental health remains taboo in the Black community. Though the Department of Health and Human Services reports that Blacks “are 20% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Whites,” a recently released study in Health Services Research found that, due to poverty and access to resources, Whites were approximately twice as likely as Blacks and Latinos to initiate care."  

“Instead of trying to stigmatize mental illness[es]," Dr. Bell told EBONY.com, we need to stress better mental health and wellness in our Black communities.”  But with the budget cuts, the impending school closures, and the proposed anti-crime legislation, the future of Black Chicago's mental health looks bleak. 

Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News, NBC and FOX, The Atlantic, EBONY, the Los Angeles Times, The Advocate and others. Read his award-winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom