vanpelt 022520CHICAGO – The Senate held a joint hearing Monday to discuss the vast disparities Illinoisans face in access to treatment for addiction and mental health disorders. State Senator Patricia Van Pelt (D-Chicago) advocates for prioritizing mental health through a holistic approach.

“It’s crucial that we examine the intersections of mental health, bias and incarceration rates,” said Van Pelt, chair of the Senate Public Health Committee. “One in five people shot and killed by the police suffered from mental illness. People who should be getting treated for their illnesses are instead being abused, killed and locked up. We must begin to look at these issues differently.”

Legislators heard from Dr. Rashad Saafir, CEO of Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center, who broke down the cycle of disparity: Many African Americans who go to the emergency room for a mental health or addiction crisis will be released without continued care, oftentimes returning to homelessness. On the streets, where police serve as first responders, people who are mentally ill are more likely to be arrested. While incarcerated, they have little to no access to mental and behavioral health care.

Dr. Saafir noted there aren’t enough Federally Qualified Health Centers on Chicago’s West Side, where the average combined annual income is $27,000, nearly half the average income for Chicago residents. Rates of unemployment and single parenthood are higher for West Side residents as well.

Dr. Saafir also pointed out that despite the prevalence of transgenerational trauma, cultural stigma is one of the largest challenges around behavioral health care in the Black community. In poor and underserved communities, some residents don’t know they need help—they believe they are simply tired or in a rut—and others don’t know where to find the resources they need.

“Part of the trauma Black neighborhoods experience is related to the intentional removal of the Black male,” Van Pelt said. “We need to reinvest into these communities so families are held together, and so they have access to professionals who can assist with their unique experiences with trauma and violence.”

Sen. Van Pelt supports early mental health screenings, the fusion of primary care and behavioral health, and increased community health investments, which were all recommended by panelists at the hearing as ways to bridge the gaps in behavioral health care across racial and socioeconomic lines.

More hearings on disparities in health and human services are expected in November.