Some suburbs vote on plan for expanded mental health services

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; Township of Vernon 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 mental health specialist with the League of Women Voters in Illinois, has personally asked since the death of her 24-year-old son Adam in 2016 when he was hit by a train.

Adam battled schizophrenia for years. He had no case manager or social worker to help implement his recovery plan. His mother believes his death was an accident but could have been prevented with follow-up care. She knows other families who have been through similar tragedies and some who have received more help and are doing well.

A municipal mental health committee, like the one proposed by petition in Tuesday’s election, would provide grants to local authorities to provide such potentially life-saving services. About 90 existing mental health agencies in Illinois pay for things like crisis center contact points, mental health screenings of youth, and social workers who help police departments deal with people in mental health crises.

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

Opponents counter that numerous agencies are already spending millions of dollars on 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 Republicans of Wheeling Township and a former township assessor, said suburbs pay too much in property taxes. Local governments in Illinois had the second-highest property tax rate of any state, according to WalletHub.

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

“A lot of people, including myself, agree with the idea that mental health issues are serious and need to be addressed,” Patlak said. “It’s better to redistribute money that’s already there than to keep taxing people and affecting their ability to support their families and staying businesses and hiring people.”

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

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

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

But each mental health committee would be appointed by the community leader, and no one knows what tax rate they will agree on, Patlak said. If they took the maximum rate in Wheeling Township, the tax bill would be much higher for an average $151 home or $375 for a business, he calculated.

However it is funded, the need for mental health care far outweighs its availability.

In Illinois, thousands of people with developmental disabilities have been on a year-long waiting list for services.

Nationwide, 14 million people suffered from a serious mental illness and 40 million from a substance use disorder last year — but only a fraction of them got help for those problems, a federal survey found.

Not coincidentally, drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed, and the nationwide suicide rate rose 4% to about 48,000 people in 2021 — more than double the number of homicides — with the sharpest increase among young adults.

Kerger said the nation is mired in a mental health crisis that has only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said programs funded by mental health agencies include recovery specialists who can help people create a recovery plan and connect them to the appropriate services.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s high school education programs, she said, include people living in recovery from substance abuse or mental illness.

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

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