Chicago pilot program partners mental health clinicians, medics, police

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the pandemic has exacerbated the need for improved mental health services, saying more than half of Illinoisans reported a decline in their mental wellness


Annie Sweeney
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Mental health clinicians will be partnered with Chicago police officers to answer calls for service in two neighborhoods starting Monday as part of a new mental health response in the city, officials said.

The rollout of the much-debated and anticipated co-responder pilot program, which will include police officers trained in mental health response, was highlighted at a Wednesday roundtable discussion Mayor Lori Lightfoot hosted to announce the launch of a public health campaign that aims to destigmatize issues around mental health.

The Monday start does not include a second alternative response model, one that fully substitutes mental health clinicians for officers, that was preferred by several aldermen and community organizations.

But Lightfoot and Chicago Department of Public Health Deputy Commissioner Matt Richards said the non-police model will be phased in, a process that was dictated by the mental health professionals who will be on the front lines of the response.

“What we heard from our mental health partners (is) people were comfortable with a phased approach,” Richards said, adding that this will allow people to “get their footing.”

”We are really committed to this, and we are building for the long haul. … We want to approach it in a very responsible manner that assures our patients, our team are being supported the best possible way.”

Activists and aldermen supporting a non-police model had called for a plan to allow clinicians and paramedics to respond to non-life-threatening calls through a dedicated emergency line.

To many, police officers simply are not equipped to respond to calls of people experiencing mental health-related distress. They argue the very presence of police, with sirens, flashing lights and guns, can increase anxiety and tension. In communities of color, the concern over how police will respond to a person in crisis is even greater, considering the long-standing mistrust minority communities have for officers and the fact that recent high-profile police-abuse deaths have involved Black victims.

Indeed, the mayor’s plan was met with criticism from the groups who have been lobbying for the non-police version of such a plan, saying the pilot also appears too small.

“The fear and escalation with the police presence is always going to be a problem,” said Arturo Carrillo, a social worker who works as an organizer for the Collaborative for Community Wellness. “The pilot is so small scale. It’s only one shift.”

When asked Wednesday by the media about the commitment to a non-police model, Lightfoot responded by saying: “The answer is unequivocally yes, because we also know in certain circumstances, particularly when we are looking at people that are OD’ing, people that are having mental health crisis related to drug addiction, police are never the best answer. Will they be somewhere in the periphery to make sure everything is fine? The answer is yes. We want to see what are the right circumstances for a clinician-only response.”

The new response is modest at its start — two separate teams that include a paramedic, clinician and police officer assigned to ride together over one shift in the Gresham and Town Hall districts. The shifts were chosen based on history of calls for such service, officials said.

Lightfoot’s comments came as Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a measure requiring all 911 emergency services involving a mental health crisis to create a mental health first responder team in conjunction with implementation next summer of the new 988 federal mental-health hotline.

Known as the Community Emergency Services and Support Act, the law will require that 911 call center operators coordinate with a mobile mental and behavioral health services system established by the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health.

The state will provide training and guidance to mobile health units and police officers aimed at equipping them to respond to those events.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D- Chicago, said there are a handful of local jurisdictions that have adopted a mental-health first responder model, “which means that a 911 call in a mental health crisis will get a mental health response as opposed to a law enforcement one. But Illinois is the first state to declare that wherever you live in our state, you will get an appropriate response to your call for help.”

The Community Emergency Services and Support Act also became known as the Stefon Watts Act in honor of a 15-year-old who suffered from autism who was shot and killed in his home in a knife-wielding encounter with Calumet City police in February 2012.

Pritzker said the pandemic has exacerbated the need for improved mental health services, saying more than half of Illinoisans reported a decline in their mental wellness during the COVID-19 outbreak and mitigation orders that followed. He also signed into law another measure making Illinois the third state in the nation to require insurance cover substance use and mental disorders.

“This is a sea change that will not only help Illinoisans get the care that they need, but will reaffirm our commitment to the basic principle that just like physical health, mental health care is essential not optional,” Pritzker said.

Sponsoring state Sen. Laura Fine said Illinois was at a “critical juncture.”

“We are facing two public health crises right now: COVID-19, and an ongoing mental health and addiction crisis that has been made worse by this pandemic,” she said. “However, too often, we’ve seen that when people try to access treatment, they are wrongfully denied care because their health plan will not tell them it is medically necessary.”

At Wednesday’s event in Chicago, Lightfoot was joined by doctors and community health workers to launch the “Un[ ]spoken” campaign that aims to combat the negative stigma surrounding mental health and increase awareness of the publicly funded mental health resources in the city.

The campaign, which launches Monday, will include links to a website that has a resource finder and testimonials of Chicagoans telling their stories of mental health struggles and recovery.

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©2021 Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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