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Illinois Flirts With Its Own Sandy Hook

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Illinois is flirting with its own Sandy Hook massacre.

The confluence between compromised mental health and perpetrators of mass murder reveals itself with painful, pitiful regularity.

That's why Illinois' own Sandy Hook looms.

From 2009 to 2012, Illinois has cut more than $187 million or 31.7% from the Illinois mental health budget, according to a report by the National Alliance for Mental Illness. In fact, Illinois ranked #3 for the most aggressive funding cuts of the 29 states that reduced their mental health budgets in that period.

Only South Carolina (-39.3%), Alabama (-36%), and Alaska (32.6%) under Republican governors cut more than Illinois under Democratic Governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn.

Recently, because of the Illinois mental health funding squeeze, clinics in Lakeview, the South Side and McHenry County have been shuttered.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness' Lora Thomas, executive director of the group's Illinois chapter said in March 2011, "People with life-threatening mental illness are being abandoned."

Mark Ishaug, CEO of Thresholds, Chicago's largest mental health provider said this week, "For years, our sector has been decimated."

While Illinois mental health funding shrivels, mental health care is largely falling in the laps of law enforcement.

On December 12, Cook County Judge Paul Biebel, the presiding judge of the county's criminal court who was honored by Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities for his effort to create the county's mental health court, noted that Cook County Jail was the nation's second largest mental health hospital.

"Today, in Cook County Jail, there are over 1,700 people on psychotropic medication, out of somewhere more than 9,000 people in the population of the jail," said Biebel at the awards ceremony. "I'm talking about something where you cannot live without your meds - bipolar disorder, clinical depression, schizoaffective disorder."

He also cited the particular mental health burden on women in Cook County Jail.

In the County Jail, of the women who are there, 80 percent have a chronic mental illness. And what is it? Post-traumatic stress--because they have been sexually abused as girls or young women. And 80 percent of the women in that jail are the sole caretakers of their children. Look at the societal cost that is paid when they average four or five kids.

The Illinois mental health funding situation would be worse were it not for the efforts of the Illinois General Assembly to refuse to accept even deeper spending cuts pushed by Blagojevich and Quinn.

State Senators Heather Steans (D-Chicago) and Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) and State Reps. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) and Patty Bellock (R-Hinsdale) have been the top legislative champions of mental health care funding and have led the efforts to beat back the worst of the Blagojevich-Quinn cuts.

Unless Illinois reverses course on mental health funding, Illinois could be headed toward its own Sandy Hook massacre.

In his initial response to the Newtown shooting, Governor Quinn ordered all Illinois flags flying at state building to be lowered to half-staff. The gesture was fitting. He also renewed his call for an assault weapons ban. Another important gesture.

But Quinn must move beyond gestures in the wake of Sandy Hook.

When the governor proposes his FY 2014 budget in March, rather pushing another round of mental health funding cuts, Quinn needs to recommend more money for mental health care.

Threshold's Ishaug says that more money for mental health care "gives us an opportunity to invest in treatment and services that work."

But Illinois mental health advocates are not waiting on Quinn.

The Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois plans to roll out its own investment plan in January, a plan that will clearly challenge the governor to turn around Illinois' dismal mental health care funding record.

One hopes Quinn rises to the challenge.

Lowering flags on poles is no longer enough.