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November 24, 2015

UCSC panel addresses mental health and social justice in Chicago

By Alex Ward   

Last Friday, the University of Chicago Community Service Center (UCSC) held a public panel about mental health in Chicago at the Center for Identity and Inclusion. The panel, “Examining the Intersection of Mental Health and Social Justice,” featured several local experts who discussed mental health in Chicago, particularly pertaining to the thousands of Chicagoans annually left to suffer from mental illness without the support of the government or their friends and relatives.

The panel opened with a personal anecdote from a current UChicago student about her experiences with mental illness. The moderators then introduced Mark Ishaug, a UChicago alumnus who spoke about his work as CEO of Thresholds. Thresholds is an organization intended to provide housing, medical care, and employment assistance to mentally ill Chicagoans. Ishaug connected his current work with Thresholds to his time as an activist in the HIV/AIDS movement, especially through the stigma associated with mental health conditions. Thresholds, his current initiative, is more focused on making sure those suffering from mental illness have the resources and stability they need to live comfortably.

Miriam Ament, founder and CEO of No Shame On U, which works to combat negative perceptions of people with mental illness, then told her own story of dealing with depression and the associated stigma she faced. Ament told the audience that over one in four Americans deal with mental illness every year, yet many never receive assistance due to fear of judgment.

Tom Dart, current IOP Fellow, Cook County Sheriff, and head of the nation’s largest mental health facility, the Cook County Jail, highlighted the massive overcrowding of mentally ill inmates forced into the criminal justice system by inadequate federal and state funding for treatment programs. He acknowledged that, although progress is being made, bias against those people with mental illness is still very much an issue. “This [stigma] is very, very pervasive in all parts of the criminal justice system,” Dart said. 

Social worker Alexa James then discussed her role as head of the Chicago branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization that advocates for mental health reform, raises awareness, and runs phone and text help lines. James emphasized that recovery from severe mental health crises requires shelter, stability, and support from friends and family, which all too many people are lacking.

Nicholas Senn High School student Giselle Camarillo talked about her work with the Mikva challenge, a program aimed at increasing youth participation in civil life. Camarillo went on to describe how her school had deliberately prevented mentally ill students from enrolling due to the associated expenses. “We had a very small, almost nonexistent population of those with mental illnesses at the school because they were not wanted,” she said.

After some discussion between the participants, UCSC Student Civic Engagement Coordinator Christopher Huff opened the panel to questions.

Huff, the event’s organizer, said that he was very pleased with the evening’s turnout, and elaborated on what he wanted to accomplish with the event. “When we looked at the issues going on with mental health in the city of Chicago, we thought it was a really good opportunity for us to have that discussion… to one, educate students on the mental health challenges facing the city of Chicago, but second, provide ways that they can actually get involved in helping address the issue,” Huff said.

Huff acknowledged that at present, there were no student organizations working to address the issue, but said that he hoped the panel might serve as an inspiration. “There’s not an organization [at the University of Chicago] right now that I know of focused specifically on mental health issues facing the city of Chicago, but I do think there is certainly the capacity for it to be created.”

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