I have followed with great interest the news from Chicago. With the news that Chicago is dismantling large parts of its mental health system to “save money” mental health consumers and advocates have literally taken to the streets to say NO. Mental health funds have always been an easy target because historically the people who depend on mental health services the most have been easy to ignore. They are easily invisible. The people in Chicago may or may not win. But there statement is loud and clear– we will never be invisible again.
Each person counts. You count. I count. We all count. And nobody need accept invisibility.
The myth has been accepted for years that you can save on mental health by decreasing funding for mental health services. At best it is wishful thinking. At worst it is simply a lie. Much of what passes as budgeting is simply cost shifting. You pay less in mental health but more in corrections, pay less in state funding but bear more costs on the local level, decrease services and pass the cost of the consequences of lack of services on to someone else. Services may be an optional cost. Consequences will never be an optional cost. And to act like it is simply is not honest or responsible.
The mental health system in Tennessee is inadequate. It doesnt mean people are not trying hard. Everyone I know is. It doesnt mean people are not honest. The commissioner, Doug Varney, is honestly concerned with doing the best for Tennesseans who need help. There are many people in the legislature who advocate strongly for a better mental health system. There is a network of advocates, providers, consumers, and state officials who all want things to be better.
But with all that access to help for many people is more illusion than real. Especially if you are poor you are not likely to meet the mental health system until your life is totally our of control and you are in legal trouble or in a state hospital. For many people the mental health system is the consequence of life out of control instead of a tool to help prevent it from getting out of control.
It is better here than in many states. Florida is cutting over 40% of its system. I cant even imagine what that would be like. Some mental health centers in Chicago with the cuts will be responsible for serving 500,000 people. I cant imagine that either.
One of the most impressive advocates I have ever known is Sita Diehl who for years was the executive director of Nami in Tennessee. She is now director of state advocacy for Nami on the national level. I can remember her response when people tried to tell her that proposed budget cuts were reasonable and to be expected. She pointed out that given the level of need and what we were doing to meet the needs that no budget cuts were reasonable. She knew clearly that putting the starving on a diet and then talking about it as a reasonable decision was a madness of its own.
I applaud the people in Chicago. I applaud the people in Tennessee who have helped to keep us from becoming a Chicago of our own. Hopefully we will never be there. But the biggest way to make sure that will never happen is to make sure that you stay visible. It is to know that you have voice and something to say that is worth being heard. It is to know that conventional wisdom is often not wise and that it is time to find a more sane, more humane way to look at things. It is to know that this is about you finding the resources to find a better life and that a system that denies you that access is more the problem than part of the solution.