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Kadner: A plea to help the mentally ill

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Updated: August 13, 2013 6:16AM



“The mentally ill in the south suburbs are becoming homeless. They’re being forced to live on the streets.

“And they’re ending up in jail because that’s the only place they can get the treatment they need.”

Those are the words of Marianne Bithos, president of the National Alliance for Mental Illness-South Suburbs of Chicago.

She told me she receives “calls all the time” from relatives of the mentally ill frantic to find help.

“Since (the state-owned) Tinley Park Mental Health Center closed, there is no hospital to treat the mentally ill in the south suburbs,” Bithos said. “Those without insurance are admitted to a hospital for a night or a day and then released back onto the streets.

“I don’t know who is responsible for funding programs to help the mentally ill, but I’m going to find out where the money is going and fight like heck to get what I can for the people in the south suburbs.”

Bithos is the parent of an adult with a mental illness.

She credits Tinley Park Mental Health Center for saving her daughter’s life.

“My daughter was talking about suicide,” Bithos said. “She wasn’t taking her medications.

“I brought her to Tinley Park to have her committed for treatment. There was a judge on the premises who could issue a RIT (Restrictive Voluntary Treatment order).

“That isn’t available at your average hospital.

“I believe my daughter is alive and living a productive life because of Tinley Park. But I worry for other families who don’t have access to that sort of support now.”

Tinley Park Mental Health Center officially closed June 30 of last year due to the state’s financial crisis.

But the fact is the state had been reducing its budget and cutting staff for years before that.

There is a line of thought that government institutions are not the best places to treat the mentally ill. Many believe community-based outpatient programs are more effective.

But for the severely mentally ill, who were treated at Tinley Park, being an outpatient can often mean landing on the streets and eventually in prison.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart maintains that he now runs the largest mental health facility in the state, Cook County Jail.

I have heard no one in the mental health field dispute that contention.

When Tinley Park closed, the state allocated millions of dollars to community-based treatment programs that were supposed to step in to help the mentally ill.

“I go to many meetings in the south suburbs and try to get help, get services, but there is little or no money to help with the care of the mentally ill,” Bithos said.

“There are waiting lists at the agencies out here. That’s what people keep telling me.”

As we talk in the kitchen of Bithos’ Hazel Crest home, we are joined by Ofelia Tovar, of Lansing.

Tovar, a member of NAMI, has an adult sister who has been in and out of nursing homes for many years.

“What I learned is that none of the places in the south suburbs have staff adequately trained to deal with severely mentally ill people,” Tovar said.

Her sister is now in a nursing home in Evanston that specializes in dealing with such patients.

“But why did I have to send my sister way up north to find a good place?” Tovar said. “Why isn’t there anything in the south suburbs?”

Before I can answer, Bithos steps in.

“For the poorest of the poor there is nothing,” Bithos said. “They closed the only hospital in the area that helps the mentally ill and have not replaced it.

“The other hospitals will only care for people who have insurance. Well, many of the mentally ill have no insurance.”

NAMI is part of a lawsuit against the state that would force it to use any funds from the sale of the Tinley Park Mental Health Center property and apply it to treatment of the mentally ill.

But the sale of the land could be years away.

“I received a call the other night from 80-year-old parents worried about their mentally ill child,” Bithos said. “They can’t find a place for long-term treatment.

“They are worried he will end up on the streets and die, or end up in prison.

“Someone 80 years old shouldn’t have to be worrying about this any more. They ought to know the government will care for their child and provide some care.”

Bithos told me another story about a man who has been mentally ill for 20 years.

He was released from one suburban hospital recently, returned later and was refused further treatment because he had been drinking, Bithos said.

“He shouldn’t have been drinking,” Bithos said. “But he was out of his meds and needed help and they turned him away.”

He walked several miles to another hospital that admitted him for a short stay but then released him back on the streets.

“They told him to go home,” Bithos said. “But he didn’t have any home.”

Bithos intervened and eventually found the man temporary placement in a community program.

“But I can’t be everywhere,” Bithos said. “I can’t solve all the problems and I’m getting more calls from concerned family members all the time.”

She is convinced that the state has failed in its pledge to support the loss of the Tinley Park Mental Health Center with more community-based programs and outreach.

“I don’t see it happening,” Bithos said. “There is no evidence of that.”

I called Grand Prairie Services, one of the community-based mental health programs that the state designated to provide help for the mentally ill in the Southland when Tinley Park closed, but no one called me back.

The fact is the state is in terrible financial shape.

And even in the best of times the mentally ill have never been a top priority.

When a person is killed by a mentally ill person, or sexually assaulted, the public spends about a day voicing outrage. The urge to do something quickly passes.

If the mentally ill die in the streets, or end up in jail, well, that’s just the way things are.



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