Some suburban areas vote on plan for expanded mental health care

Some suburban voters in Tuesday’s election will be asked if they want to pay for better mental health services in their communities.

Addison, Naperville, Lisle and Winfield townships in DuPage County; Schaumburg and Wheeling townships in Cook County; Vernon Township in Lake County; and all of Will County will hold referendums on whether to introduce property tax levies to fund mental health, developmental disabilities and addiction services.

It’s a question Lorri Grainawi, a League of Women Voters of Illinois mental health specialist, has taken personally since the 2016 death of her 24-year-old son, Adam, when he was struck by a train.

Adam battled schizophrenia for years. He had no case manager or social worker to help him follow his recovery plan. His mother believes his death was accidental, but could possibly have been prevented with follow-up services. She knows other families who have gone through similar tragedies, and some who have gotten more help and are doing well.

A community mental health board, like the one proposed by a petition in Tuesday’s election, would provide grants to local agencies to provide such potentially life-saving services. About 90 existing mental health boards in Illinois pay for things like drop-in crisis centers, screening youth for mental illness, and social workers who help police departments deal with people in mental crisis.

“By doing it locally,” said Grainawai, “you can meet more local needs.”

Opponents counter that numerous agencies already spend millions of dollars to provide such services. Federal Medicaid and Medicare, county health departments and the Illinois Department of Human Services provide mental health services.

Dan Patlak, president of the Wheeling Township Republicans and former township assessor, said suburbanites pay too much in property taxes. Local governments in Illinois had the second highest property tax rate among all states, according to WalletHub.

Similar to some other townships, Wheeling Township already gives about $575,000 in grants to social service agencies, much of it for behavioral and mental health and intellectual disabilities, Patlak said.

“A lot of people, including myself, are sympathetic to the idea that mental health problems are serious and need to be addressed,” Patlak said. “It is better to reallocate money that is already there, than to burden people further and harm their ability to support their families, and for businesses to stay and employ people.”

Conservative business owner Richard Uihlein donated $25,000 to oppose the measure, Patlak said. Opponents sent mailers to registered voters in Wheeling Township.

The proposed tax increase is small compared to most other government units, such as schools. Under state law, referendum proposals for mental health boards have a maximum property tax rate of 0.15%. but such councils usually tax at a lower rate. Advocates in Wheeling Township are asking for a tax rate of 0.026% to raise $1.5 million, for an estimated tax of about $28 on a home valued at $335,000.

In Milton Township, voters narrowly approved a mental health board in 2021. Geri Kerger, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in DuPage County, said her council tax bill was $21 for the year.

But any mental health board would be appointed by the township supervisor, and no one knows what tax rate they’ll settle on, Patlak said. If they chose the maximum rate in Wheeling Township, he calculated, the tax bill for the average home would be much higher, at $151, or for a business, $375.

However it is financed, the need for mental health care far outstrips the availability.

In Illinois, thousands of people with developmental disabilities are on a years-long waiting list for services.

Nationally, 14 million people have had serious mental illness in the past year, and 40 million have a substance use disorder — but only a fraction of those have gotten help for those problems, a federal survey found.

Not coincidentally, overdose deaths have soared, and the rate of suicides rose 4% to about 48,000 people in 2021 — more than twice the number of murders — with the increase most pronounced among young adults.

Kerger said the country is in a mental health crisis that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said programs funded by mental health boards include recovery specialists who can help people form a recovery plan and connect them with the services to do so.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ educational programs in high schools, she said, include people recovering from substance abuse or mental illness.

“Kids know people who are sick, and think there’s nothing they can do,” Kerger said. “They give you hope to recover.”

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