Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=112649
Story Retrieval Date: 5/24/2013 7:06:36 PM CST
As the North River Mental Health Clinic fights to keep its doors open, Jim and Shirley Weber have been two of its most vocal supporters. The Sauganash couple has written letters, contacted their aldermen and asked all 73 parishes in Chicago for support.
But the path that took them to their most recent roles as community activists began 19 years ago, when their only daughter started to turn into someone they didn’t recognize.
Theresa Weber was a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Iowa when her parents started to sense something was wrong. Theresa had once been sweet, studious and responsible. But her grades started slipping, and she began to fight with her roommates. Her friends reported strange behavior – holding on to seemingly meangingless objects, darting out in the street without looking.
Then came the voices, the paranoia, the pictures that would talk to her from their frames. “She just spiraled down further and further,” Shirley Weber said. Theresa was finally diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a debilitating one-two punch of mood disorder and schizophrenia.
Theresa went through one medication cocktail after another, and even tried nutrient therapy at a Warrenville center to address the chemical imbalances that caused her illness. “It was trial and error – they’d try one thing and when that didn’t work, it was on to the next one,” Jim Weber said.
The hopelessness and confusion the Webers felt at their daughter’s diagnosis inspired them to get involved in mental health advocacy. They eventually founded the St. Dymphna Society Foundation, named for the patron saint of the mentally ill. They raise awareness for mental illness and sponsor an annual mass at Queen of All Saints Basilica in Sauganash.
“When you hear broken leg or a heart attack, you know how to cope,” Shirley Weber said. “When it’s mental illness, you don’t know how to feel. You don’t see the end of the tunnel.”
And now, when they attend benefits – the National Alliance for Mental Illness' annual dinner or Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers' annual golf outing – the people they meet there almost always have a friend or family member with a mental illness, they said.
“It’s not an ‘in’ health cause,” Jim Weber said. “It’s hard to raise awareness or money with people who haven’t been personally affected.”
This is true of many of the North River Mental Health Clinic’s supporters. The Webers are fighting for Theresa. Rosemary Tirio is fighting for her goddaughter, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her 30s. Sauganash resident Elaine Loren is fighting for her son.
“Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, and sometimes it takes someone you love to be affected for you to realize how prevalent it is,” Shirley Weber said.
Through the Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centers in Uptown, Theresa has a job at a downtown flower shop. She lives with her parents, who say she is doing better than they could have possibly imagined nearly two decades ago.
The Webers said they hope public policy and funding keep pace with the medical advances that have broadened treatment options and reduced some of the stigma around mental illness.
“Recovery is possible in a way it wasn’t before, but you still need a place for that to happen.” Jim Weber said. “North River has been that place.”
In the mid-1990s, the North River Mental Health Center at Pulaski and Devon avenues had 15 full-time therapists. Staff members worked with local students and seniors and provided alcohol and drug counseling for several Northwest Side neighborhoods.
Now there are two therapists and most of those outreach programs are gone, victims of steady budget cuts over the past decade. The North Park facility mostly caters to the severely mentally ill, offering counseling and monitoring medication for its 450 patients.
“Little by little, they stripped the center of everything it did for the community,” said Sauganash resident Shirley Weber.
This fall, the clinic's neighbors decided to do something about it. Spurred by a citywide mental health advocacy group, voters passed – by a nearly 3-to-1 margin – a ballot referendum to raise their own property taxes and restore the clinic's funding.
So supporters of the clinic were surprised when North River appeared on a provisional list of city mental health centers tagged last month for shutdown. Facing a $1.2 million drop in state funding, health officials had designated the clinic as one of five to be closed in February.
“We were completely blindsided,” said Rosemary Tirio, a member of the Coalition to Save our Mental Health Centers. “The city’s pulling the rug out from under us.”
The coalition responded by urging residents to call the mayor’s office and local aldermen. They also picketed outside the clinic last week and plan to picket again on Friday.
The city health department seems to have noticed. North River was not on the final list of closures released on Wednesday, and Commissioner Terry Mason said the board is rethinking the move.
“It will be re-looked at,” Mason said at Wednesday’s board of health meeting. “If we can find a way to do it safely, we will. … But I heard what was said in the referendum.”
The ballot measure, which passed with 71 percent of the vote, would create a Special Services Area, a tax mechanism that allows local governments to raise money and deliver services solely within a certain district. The money – about $600,000 in the first year, according to coalition organizer Mike Snedeker – would go directly to the North River clinic. Residents of the clinic’s service area would comprise a majority of its governing board.
“This is about standing up and saying as a community that we’re going to take care of the most vulnerable among us,” Weber said of the increase that would cost homeowners between $12 and $25 per year. “It’s local money, under local control, helping local people.”
But that goal may not work as intended. Mental health patients can go to any of the city’s clinics, and, said Tim Hadac, health department spokesman, they will follow the money. “When word gets out that North River is a good place to go," he said, "people from all over the city will be there."
Under the city’s original plan, North River would be consolidated with the Northtown/Rogers Park clinic, located near the Howard Red Line station about six miles away.
That’s too far for many of the center’s patients, Snedeker said. There are few direct routes by public transit from North Park to Howard, and for some, just the idea of going to a new facility is overwhelming. “We’re talking about hundreds of severely mentally ill people with no service at all,” Snedeker said.
Even if it stays off the chopping block for now, North River’s survival is not guaranteed. The referendum is not binding, which means the City Council will have to pass an ordinance to create the Special Services Area.
Ald. William Banks (36th) introduced such an bill in July, and the council is set to consider it in March. The clinic's challenge now is to keep its doors open long enough to see that happen. “It’s touch-and-go right now,” Tirio said.
If North River is successful, its story could serve as a template for other community clinics facing service and funding cuts, coalition members said.
It is likely too late for the four mental health clinics still scheduled to close next month – Woodlawn, Greater Grand/Mid-South, Back of the Yards and Beverly-Morgan Park. But Mason said Wednesday that the city is bracing for further drops in state funding. As community clinics see their lifeline threatened, many are inspired by what North River has done.
“I think everyone is a little nervous…that this might not be the end [of the cuts],” said Badonna Reingold, a board member of the Woodlawn clinic, which is slated for closure next month. “But this shows that we don’t have to take a shutdown quietly.”