Occupy Mental Health! Save Chicago’s Clinics

What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?—Ursula K. Le Guin

While riding the Blue Line downtown to the April 16 Monday morning press conference by Chicago’s Mental Health Movement, I couldn’t help but reflect on Mayor Rahm’s Emanuel’s obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is obsessive about funneling money to Chicago’s wealthy and compulsive about his attacks on services for Chicago’s working class. Rahm’s latest offensive is the closing of 6 of Chicago's 12 mental health clinics. 

The plan to close the clinics first came up last fall during protests surrounding the Mayor’s proposed budget, which also included slashing library services, privatizing neighborhood health clinics and layoffs of public employees. Mental health patients and workers staged a sit-in outside the Mayor’s Office that lasted 10 hours. They were forced to leave when security locked the toilet facilities. 

Below is a video produced shortly after the fall round of protests.

OUR LIVES ON THE LINE: Voices from Chicago's mental health clinics

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has criticized the cuts arguing that limited access to mental health care is turning his jail into "the largest mental health provider in the state of Illinois." 

Undaunted, and calling themselves the Mental Health Movement, the group continued their struggle. The Mental Health Movement is a member of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), a five year old community coalition with an impressive record of winning victories. According to N’Dana Carter, a clinic user and spokeswoman for the  Mental Health Movement, the group collected over 4000 support letters, talked to nearly all of the City’s aldermen and held numerous press conferences and rallies. 

Finally, with the deadline fast approaching for the closing of the Southside Chicago Woodlawn Clinic, the group decided to take dramatic and drastic action.  On Thursday April 12, they entered the Woodlawn Mental Health Center at 5 pm and barricaded themselves inside to demand a meeting with Mayor Emanuel.

N’Dana Carter explained why:

” We are the ones who know the disaster these clinic closures will mean for our communities and our city but Mayor Emanuel been unwilling to listen to us, so we are taking drastic measures to avoid a tragedy and defend our human rights."

Supporters gathered in front of the clinic, sitting-in and linking arms as more police arrived. Occupy Chicago played an important role in organizing the spirited protests outside where people chanted,” Fight! Fight! Fight! Health care is a human right!” Shortly after midnight, the police gained entrance to the clinic using chain saws, bolt cutters and other heavy tools. They arrested 23 people.

Inside the Woodlawn Clinic before the bust:

Outside of the Clinic before the bust:

According to the arrestees, some of whom were elderly and in fragile health, they were treated in a dangerous and humiliating way by being roughly handled, not screened for possible mental episodes and being ridiculed by their captors. Supposedly the Chicago Police Department has a crisis intervention unit trained to deal with situations like this. They were nowhere in evidence.

One of the arrestees later told of how two of the group members were denied medication:

”[They] were in crisis and if not for the fact that we there to advocate for them, they could have had a life threatening crisis. This was a serious failure of our criminal justice system and we can expect more and more untreated people to be channeled through this prison system we are going to have many many crises and tragedies because people are not being assessed and treated for their conditions. It was an eye-opening experience”

N’Dana Carter told of being groped by a male officer in her vaginal area under the guise of being searched, a search that should only be conducted by a female officer. She described it as, “A sexual assault.” 

After being released, the Mental Health Movement set up a small tent village in a weedy vacant lot across from the Woodlawn clinic. The tent village had a rough weekend of bad weather, but was still standing strong when the Mental Health Movement traveled downtown to hold a April 16 Monday morning press conference in front of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) and later meet with CDPH officials.

Among those at the  press conference was Timothy Hudson, a member of the Illinois Nurses Association (INA). The INA has been supporting the efforts of the Mental Health Movement. A former public health nurse, Hudson explained that nurses are also advocates for their patients:

”We are here to add our voice to the outcry, to the support, support for the enhancement of services for the providers who are already educated and trained to do the work and build what we have as a base instead of destroying what we have. I am very concerned about what the outcomes will be.”

Horace Towers, who goes to one of the clinics, described himself this way,” 

"I am a mental health consumer, but I am a member, a volunteer of STOP. But I am also just an Illinois resident and a city resident, but I’m out here standing up for people. I’m not scared anymore. I’m not afraid to say I had a mental illness.”


Later the group met with the  officials of the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) who tried to reassure them that their needs would be taken care of by the CDPH “partner institutions”, as well as the remaining public clinics. 

This was met by deep skepticism by the Mental Health Movement activists who told of people already being turned away after referrals. One woman gave details about the understaffed Greater Lawn Mental Health Center whose workers cried when they had to turn away new patients. The term "partner institutions" is just a gussied-up term for privatization, and private health care has no interest in patients that don't generate a profit. 

Jo Patton of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees(AFSCME Council 31 was also there to offer its support. AFSCME has been very helpful throughout the entire struggle and helped the Mental Health Movement produce a 23 page report in January. I have quoted from that report below. For the full report, please go HERE

Dumping Responsibility:The Case Against Closing CDPH Mental Health Clinics 

  1. The city’s claimed cost savings are tiny and illusory. CDPH claims closing clinics will save $2 million—barely 1% of its $169 million annual budget. And this claim ignores the budgetary, societal and human costs of inevitable disruptions in patient care—including increased emergency room visits, hospitalization, police intervention and incarceration.
  2. CDPH should cut waste—including $1.67 million in new spending on upper management salaries, outside contracts, advertising and surveys. This amount should be used to sustain and improve city MH clinics.
  3. CDPH would transfer at least 1,100 Medicaid patients to private providers— effectively giving away federal reimbursement for their services. If this plan is budget-driven, it is illogical to turn away patients with the ability to pay.
  4. Closing six clinics will force 2,549 patients to travel to other city clinics or seek private care. There is no guarantee that private providers and hospitals will offer treatment regardless of ability to pay. The system’s more than 3,000 uninsured individuals are least likely to find private care since such providers already face shrinking budgets and reduced state funding.
  5. CDPH is rushing to close clinics in just eight weeks—despite having six months of funding in the budget and nothing but an outline of a plan for patient care. CDPH has circulated a list of private providers, but admits it has no formal agreements with or information regarding capacity, services and wait times from these agencies.

As I sat in on the meeting with the Department of Public Health that Monday morning, I thought of my own struggles with depression, of being lost in that long dark tunnel of despair and on at least two occasions, wondering if I was going to come out alive. Fortunately I had access to some limited treatment, even though my health insurance didn't cover it because it was a pre-existing condition. 

When people are in that kind of state, it’s difficult for them to fight their own inner demons, much less ones with the power of the Mayor’s Office and the LaSalle Street financial barons. The mental health patients who are carrying on this battle are health care heroes and deserve to be treated as such.

That evening however, the police arrived in the dead of night and treated them like criminals once again. They forced the Mental Health Movement to dismantle their tents so that people ended up sleeping in cars and sitting upright in chairs on the sidewalk. The cops said that owner of the vacant lot had complained. It was a lie. The complaint did not come from the owner. No one even seems to know who the owner is. The demonstrators did lose a tent to the police, but managed to hang on to most of their food and supplies.

The protestors held another press conference on Tuesday afternoon and with the media present, tried to set up their tent village once again on the vacant lot. Their lawyer explained that as long as there has not been a complaint from the property owner, the people were within their rights to do that. The police moved in, arrested two indivduals, seemingly at random, and forced the protestors back on to the sidewalk. One of the cops said that the courts could settle it.

Southside Chicago has been plagued with shootings in recent months and diverting police officers away from serious crime investigation is itself a crime. Rahm Emanuel’s priorities are clear. Despite all of the facts presented and the personal stories told, the Mayor’s obsessive catering to the wealthy and his compulsive dissing of the working class goes on unabated.Mr. Mayor, seek help.

The Mental Health Movement is planning a Saturday health fair at the Occupation site located at 6337 S. Woodlawn with nurses from the Illinois Nurses Association, National Nurses United and Nurses for Social Justice. They will be available for blood pressure screening and health education. There will also be food, music and poetry. The fair runs from 10am to 6pm.


Faces of the Mental Health Movement

Mental Health Movement


Sources consulted: 

Rallying against mayor’s plan to close mental health facilities by Kaley Fowler

Activists Set Up New Encampment At Clinic In Woodlawn by aaroncynic

Southside Together Organizing for Power

Politics in Woodlawn: Occupation of the Mental Health Clinic by Ramsin Canon

Standing up to clinic closures by Brian Bean

Protesters Stage Sit-In Of Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic by aaroncynic

Woodlawn Mental Health Center Protest: 23 Arrested After Barricading Themselves Inside from the Huffington Post

Dumping Responsibility: The Case Against Closing CDPH Mental Health Clinics by the Mental Health Movement and AFSCME Council 31

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