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Commentary: Will Tucson prompt Illinois to honor an old commitment?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 30, 2011 - The madness in Tucson should bring sanity to Springfield. But will it?

More than six years ago, a 24-year-old university dropout with a history of erratic behavior strode into the Illinois Capitol, aimed a stolen shotgun at an unarmed security guard and fired a lethal bullet into his chest. State officials mourned the 51-year-old husband and father of two, a good and decent man they knew and liked. They also bolstered State House security. Yet, they have abetted the devastating deterioration of community-based mental health services already deemed insufficient long before Bill Wozniak's horrific encounter with a deranged stranger.

In the aftermath of the Arizona bloodshed, experts and commentators ask us anew to hone our sensitivity to those whose illness makes them a threat to others or themselves. They properly urge us to notify relatives, alert law enforcement officials and make appropriate referrals. However, we also must heighten our awareness of what transpires too often after the notifications and the referrals. Even if acutely troubled people receive effective treatment in the throes of crisis, they may well lack the continuity of care crucial to long-term stability in settings that allow them to live as independently and productively as possible.

Close monitoring to assure they take the medications that keep them in balance, counseling to help negotiate pressure points, affordable housing, job training and placement - all of these belong on a readily available menu for a population that is overwhelmingly nonviolent but does include potential killers.

Decades ago, state leaders vowed to provide that menu. They shuttered several state institutions and pledged more humane, successful, economical treatment in cities and neighborhoods throughout Illinois. But they have failed, even in the years that preceded state government's fiscal collapse, to establish and fully fund the infrastructures vital to the promised reform.

So, to an alarming degree, deinstitutionalization has morphed into trans-institutionalization.

"Community-based systems have been shown to be the most cost-effective mechanism for delivering high-quality treatment services, especially for people with chronic mental illnesses. Illinois, however, has a perverse history of underfunding true community systems in favor of dumping grounds for the mentally ill - nursing homes, jails and prisons," says Ron Davidson, director of the mental health policy program in the psychiatry department of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

State funding for the services Davidson and other experts advocate has been slashed by $70 million, or 14 percent, over the past two years. Those reductions combined with incredible delays in payments have forced local agencies to downsize their staffs and reluctantly shun an estimated 80,000 Illinoisans. Providers have been both defunded and demoralized.

Are there brighter days ahead for them and those they serve? Let's hope so.

Responding to a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of mentally ill persons inappropriately housed in nursing homes, Gov. Patrick Quinn's administration recently agreed to honor - at long last - commitments made and renewed by chief executives since the 1980s to enhance and expand community-based care. Not surprisingly, skepticism persists. But the governor and lawmakers can overcome it if they renovate a crumbling social service network in Illinois.

The assault in Arizona stirred sorely needed discussion about civility in our political discourse. It also should help us recognize the importance of fully civilizing our approach to mental illness in Illinois.

But will it?

Editor's Note: The Beacon is sorry to announce that Mike Lawrence is discontinuing his column syndication to spend more leisure time in his retirement. We wish him all the best, though we cannot hope that he finds too many victories for his beloved Cubs. Throughout his career, Lawrence has been a top-notch professional, whose commitment to accuracy and fairness has been an example to many. We hope that he will be moved to share his observations again from time to time.

Mike Lawrence, former reporter, press secretary for then-Gov. Jim Edgar and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, is retired. 

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