Make mental health a Chicago priority

As we thaw out from last week’s deep freeze, many Chicagoans are probably looking forward to ringing in the New Year without worrying too much about inclement weather foiling their plans. 

But keep in mind that not everyone has been, or is, in a celebratory mood. This time of year can be particularly difficult and triggering. 

Three out five Americans feel like their mental health takes a nose dive during the holidays, according a 2021 report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Of those who live with depression or another mental illness, 64% said their conditions worsened, another NAMI report found. 

The recent suicides of three Chicago police officers within a week’s span are glaring reminders why mental health needs to remain a priority — for each one of us, but also for employers, especially in high-stress job areas.

The Chicago Police Department has made some strides in hiring clinicians to help officers — and, hopefully, prevent more such tragedies. CPD now has 17 clinical therapists, and five more positions have yet to be filled to bring the total to 22 — a little more than twice the 10 that CPD has had in recent years. The interviews for those remaining positions will continue in January, a CPD spokesman assured us, adding that there are drug and alcohol counselors and peer support and chaplain services available for free for department members and their families.

“We recognize that we have to strengthen these programs and expand them,” the spokesman acknowledged. 

That recognition is a crucial step.

Meanwhile, the city as a whole must remain forward-thinking on this front. Many Chicagoans still remember when the city closed several mental health clinics in a cost-cutting move. 

As part of its Mental Health Equity plan, the city had anticipated rolling out a 211 phone number in the fall to make it easier for residents to get connected to health and social services, including counseling. 

A 211 website is up and running with a searchable database of services and a web-chat feature, which helps Chicagoans and suburban Cook County residents get assistance.

But the actual 211 phone system is not yet in place. City officials said they are working with the county and the United Way of Metro Chicago, and we hope the system gets on track quickly in 2023. Chicago is the only major municipality in the nation that doesn’t have a 211 phone system, and not everyone has a computer or access to the internet. 

Effective and accessible services are sorely needed. The good news is, Chicago is at least having a much-needed conversation on mental health.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.