Mental health services for people, by people


In April 2012, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed half of the city’s 12 public mental health centers. The closures mainly affected blacks and low-income locals, who were no strangers to disappointing legislation. In fact, the mayor’s blow to their existing social safety net was just the latest example of socio-economic and political disregard. Decades of iniquity and disinvestment, lack of employment and education opportunities, housing injustice and many others were met with broken promises of social programs that came and went with the grants.

After years of frustration, West Side residents in the North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park and Near West Side neighborhoods decided they had had enough. Instead of waiting for a solution, they would create one, from scratch. The result was the Chicago Encompassing Center.

Sowing the seeds of change

Located at the center of public transport, the Center opened in the fall of 2019, but collective efforts had started years earlier. In 2016, the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers (CSOMHC) approached Father Larry Dowling and a few of his parishioners with a proposal to open a community-driven, community-created mental health center on the West Side of Chicago. The Coalition was born from a citizens’ initiative to challenge the previous directive of Mayor Emmanuel. In a show of triumph for the organization, they had led a popular campaign to pass legislation allowing any Chicago community to open its own Expanded Mental Health Services Program (EMHSP).

The Encompassing Center would be their second victory. Their first success came in helping Albany Park, a northern community, to open their own community mental health service, The Kedzie Center.

Community members are rallying to support the move that would bring a community-funded mental health facility to the West Side. Chicago, 2016. Credit: The Encompassing Center

Under the leadership of the Coalition and Institute for Community Empowerment (ICE), a leadership training and organizing group, West Siders from four parishes and other organizations have knocked on doors, asking residents to support a community-controlled mental health center.

“We needed 2,800 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot to answer two prompts’ yes we need a mental health center ‘and’ we are ready to raise our property taxes by four percent for pay them, “” said Father Dowling mentioned. “We managed to get 10,260 people to sign our petitions. Once on the ballot, the referendum received 86.5% of the vote in favor of the measure.

A localized approach to mental health services

The foundations had been laid, but the navigation of community members well-founded suspicions of traditional medical treatment would require work. The effort forced the developers at the Center to use a more holistic and empathetic view of mental health, one that honors people’s lived experiences while providing them with the resources to get better.

“We realized that mental health is not just about diagnosis, talk therapy or medication,” said Jennifer F. Smith, program director at the Encompassing Center.

“It is also about safe housing, adequate nutrition, lack of opportunities and overcoming fear or shame of having to depend on social services, such as using a pantry. To fully support our customers, we cannot ignore situations that make them anxious or unstable, so we connect them to the various other services they need.

We realized that mental health is not just about diagnosis, talk therapy or medication… To fully support our clients, we cannot ignore situations that make them anxious or unstable, so we connect them various other services they need.— Jennifer F. Smith, Program Director at the Encompassing Center

In addition to the three main mental health services, the Center also partners with State-of-the-art day hospital offer psychiatric services for which the costs of clients are covered by the Center. Therapists and counselors at the center work with community parishes, churches, organizations, and even individual residents to determine where help is most needed.

“We can help a couple who just want to learn better communication skills, or we can put a person with severe schizophrenia in touch with a residential treatment program. Anyone in the community can reach out and ask for what they need for their particular field, anger management, a trauma book club, or discussions about depression, grief and loss. Whatever the need, we will put in place the tools, programming and people to meet their demands, ”said Smith.

A community funded business

The Center, which occupies 6,000 square feet of space, operates with an annual budget of approximately $ 1 million. The budget is funded by a property tax assessment of four percent of every $ 1,000 collected from the four communities served by the Center. Eighty-five percent of the budget is allocated to direct services to residents.

The staff of the Encompassing Center includes an addiction counselor, five therapists, a clinical supervisor, a program director, a receptionist and a communications professional. In the two years since opening their doors, they have seen over 400 patients and have partnered with many groups on programmatic opportunities and community outreach.

mental health: Over the summer, the Center partnered with Breakthrough Urban Ministries, hosting a table at their East Park Takeover resource fair.  Credit: The Encompassing Center
Over the summer, the Center partnered with Revolutionary urban ministries, a faith-based organization that provides connections, skills and resources to those affected by poverty on the West Side of Chicago. Here they are seen at their East Park Takeover resource fair. Credit: The Encompassing Center

Like many other establishments, the reach and impact of the Center have been thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic. They were forced to switch to tele-mental health instead of face-to-face therapy. Currently, the tele-mental health option remains, although in person, and programmatic services are also available. Going forward, Smith expects the number of customers they see to grow exponentially.

For the people, by the people

The Centre’s nine-member board of directors ensures a constant and reliable flow of mental health services by providing the necessary operational and financial oversight. Janice Oda-Gray, chair of the Centre’s board of directors, recalled a reporter who had warned her against believing that the Center was foolproof just because it was funded by property taxes. Impressed by the operation, the reporter said he had seen “good things like the Center come and go” due to embezzlement, Oda-Gray recalled.

“It stuck in my head,” she said. “So every year I have this long end-of-year speech to the board about the importance of being financially responsible. The West Siders are under a magnifying glass, and they look at us much more severely than any other organization because they expect us to fail. But we won’t. We will make sure we are above the board and use the funds as they are intended to be spent. “

Mental Health, community members gather outside the center for a Thanksgiving food drive.  Credit: The Encompassing Center
This fall, the Center partnered with the Greater Bethlehem Healing Temple in Chicago to host a Thanksgiving food drive for the community. Credit: The Encompassing Center

That the operation remains locally funded is of utmost importance to the West Siders, many of whom are wary of outside organizations that traditionally engage in patronizing attempts to “save” the West Siders.

On another occasion, Oda Gary was approached by a resident who had read a newspaper article incorrectly indicating that the Center was funded by the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“I told him it was totally wrong,” Oda-Gray said. “Yes, we have worked with the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, which is partly funded by the Archdiocese. And, yes, we are hiring Chicago Catholic Charities to staff our therapists and other positions. But the center is funded by the community and paid for through our property taxes. Hopefully it always will be.

Hopes for the future

Smith calls the Centre’s potential “unlimited,” adding that she would like to see more staff and services.

Last October, the Center celebrated its second year of operation and neighborhoods, such as Little Village, Bronzeville, Englewood, Roseland and Austin, are using the Encompassing Center as a model to open their own community-controlled mental health centers, according to the father Dowling. .

Oda-Gray hopes to see an extension of the Centre’s work in the form of satellite and mobile mental health centers, to meet the needs of people who have transportation challenges or fear leaving their immediate neighborhood.

Staff at the center hope their compassionate, community-led approach will encourage more residents to seek help when they need it. Credit: The Encompassing Center

Overall, the team wants to remove the stigma and other barriers that prevent local residents from seeking the care they need. As Smith repeats, “We treat the brain as if it is a separate organ, whereas if we have high blood pressure or heart problems, we will turn to a cardiologist in the blink of an eye. We’ll go to our obstetrician-gynecologist or ophthalmologist, but the brain is the one organ people avoid when it’s just as important to take care of our mind as we would any other part of our body.

Father Dowling agrees. “Twenty or thirty years ago I was struggling with anxiety and depression and asked for help. It really changed my life and turned me in a whole new direction, ”he said. “This is why I am in the ministry today because [getting that help] helped me refocus.

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