Left Justified: Our mental health needs a health check

By Stanley Campbell

Winnebago County has more resources for helping the mentally ill than most places, but if you wanted to get off drugs, or get cured of alcoholism, you’d be hard pressed to find help quickly. That’s the conclusion of Ray Empereur, long-time health advocate and manager.

Raymond W. Empereur has worked in the management of public and community health organizations in northern Illinois for 30 years. He co-authored a “white paper” for the League of Women Voters of Greater Rockford: “Funding the Behavioral Health System for Boone and Winnebago Counties—2009.”

This paper describes a crisis in funding behavioral health services in our area. He wants to address this crisis and to find ways to improve local funding.

Since 1999, access to behavioral health services, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, has been cited in two studies as major health issues. The Rockford Healthy Community Study (1999) was completed by Health Systems Research. In 2003, Rockford Health Council completed a follow-up. This study covered Boone, Ogle and Winnebago counties. It should be noted that Ogle County has a “708” Mental Health Board that funds local mental health services.

Both studies documented a high level of unmet need for mental health and substance abuse services:

40,146 local residents aged 18-54 have been affected by a mental disorder, including 30,395 in Winnebago County and 4,435 in Boone County. The remainder are in Ogle County.

Among people aged 55 and older, an estimated 15,853 people have a mental disorder.

44.7 percent of CONTACT Helpline calls in 2002 pertained to mental health. In 2004, 47 percent of calls pertained to mental health. CONTACT is no longer funded.

15,454 people aged 12 and older are estimated to be using illicit drugs, 11,124 people in Winnebago County and an additional 2,273 in Boone County.

13,000 Winnebago County residents use alcohol heavily, 2,000 more in Boone County.

20 percent of fatal vehicle crashes in Winnebago County involve alcohol.

Winnebago drug-related arrests have accelerated, from 329 in 1990 to 1,358 in 2001.

More mental and substance abuse calls for more efficient use of resources. Rockford Health Council organizations have been working together since 1999. Enhancing system performance is a partial response to increased demand. The reality is that we lack sufficient local funding in Boone and Winnebago counties to truly address capacity demands.

The Winnebago-Boone County area is the largest metropolitan area of the state without a local funding mechanism. In most areas, a local mental health board recommends a property tax-based levy set annually by the county board. Our area lacks such a resource and, thus, in the Boone-Winnebago area, per capita funding for behavioral health care is among the lowest in Illinois.

Inadequate funding hurts our community in the following ways:

There are no in-patient child psychiatric beds in the area and too few providers to meet the need.

There are too few psychiatrists in private practice in the area. This places a high demand on agencies such as Janet Wattles and Rosecrance.

Emergency room visits for behavioral health reasons have increased. At SwedishAmerican, 158 ER visits per month were for mental health or substance abuse. In 2004, the average increased to 261 visits per month, an increase of 65 percent in three years!

OSF/Saint Anthony reports nearly nine people per month treated for attempting suicide, and accidental drug overdoses have increased by nearly 50 percent since 2002 to more than 12 per month.

Supportive and transitional housing and support services are in high demand.

Many clients are diagnosed as both mentally ill and drug dependent (kinda like self-medicating).

So, Rockford Urban Ministries (for which I work) hosts a free program this Thursday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m. in the RUM Community Room, 201 Seventh St. (use the JustGoods fair trade store entrance, or park on the west side).

Ray Empereur, author of “Funding the Behavioral Health System for Boone and Winnebago Counties—2009” will speak. This is co-sponsored with the League of Women Voters of Greater Rockford. Free and open to the public, for a healthy public.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the October 21-27, 2009 issue