Signs of hope for wrongfully held people with mental illness

As of July 1, our region is within reach of a pragmatic solution to a major social problem - the overuse of emergency rooms as the default destination of those with mental illness who are apprehended by police but should not be incarcerated.

Law enforcement officials find it frustrating to sit for hours in emergency rooms until the overworked medical staff finds the time to treat a person. Those struggling with mental illness often worsen while waiting - trauma on a street followed by trauma in a loud and crowded ER waiting room. And the families of those with mental illness are often left to wonder what is happening to their loved one.

What police and families have lacked is something called a crisis stabilization unit (CSU), a facility designed for and staffed by mental health professionals who are best able to diagnose, stabilize and care for those with mental-health challenges.

In Illinois, we have evidence of the usefulness of crisis stabilization units (CSUs). A new unit at Holy Cross Hospital on the Southwest Side of Chicago, for example, has already treated 969 patients. This option has reduced emergency room waiting times for those brought to the hospital by police by an hour and a half. And the average stay in the hospital for those suffering a behavioral episode has dropped from two days to 15 hours. Police accustomed to sitting and waiting for two hours now are in and out in 15 minutes.

This process also saves money. Swedish Covenant Hospital on Chicago's North Side, has already saved $315,000 just by diverting four of the most frequent users of its emergency room to the Welcoming Center of one of its partner organizations, Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. But they could do much more with a CSU.

These early positive signs, however, have been limited because the reimbursement rate for CSUs in Illinois has been, until now, very low. That's why our four-county community leaders and representatives from law enforcement, health care providers and non-profits met with Gov. J.B. Pritzker right after his election to make the case for an increase in the CSU reimbursement rate so that more hospitals and health providers could start and manage new facilities. So far, we have received commitments from five health care providers in five northern Illinois counties to establish CSUs as soon as the reimbursement rate increase is implemented.

This is a change whose time has come. More than 1,000 police officers in our region have already received training so that they can identify people with mental illness or drug addiction and divert them to a crisis stabilization unit. Emergency rooms, now overwhelmed, will no longer be flooded by people in behavioral health crisis - people they are not necessarily designed or staffed or equipped to treat. And, most importantly, in a state where 20% of us experience some mental-health challenges during our lifetime and where suicide is the third leading cause of death for residents between the ages of 10 and 24, we can stop putting people caught up in emotional or addiction-related episodes in jail and instead divert them into a CSU where they can get the help they need and then get on with their lives

On July 11, a ribbon cutting was held on the new addition at Holy Cross Hospital, which will now be able to move patients out of a crowded makeshift space to a fully operating CSU, increasing capacity threefold. Let's use this as the opportunity throughout Illinois to stop billing Medicaid for costly unnecessary emergency room visits when there is a clear alternative that will save the state millions while providing better care for people with a mental illness. We urge Gov. Pritzker to make it a priority to help additional CSUs in the region open their doors and build off this success.

Yvonne Smith, of Evansto and United Power for Action and Justice, and Shakeel Syed, of Round Lake Beach and Lake County United, are community leaders affiliated with the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. Rick Lathrop, of Batavia and Fox River Valley Initiative, and Lucy Tarabour, of Clarendon Hills and DuPage United, also contributed to this article.

Shakeel Syed
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