COURTESY OF SUSSMAN

On Wednesday, April 16, the Riverside branch of AAUW will sponsor a talk at the Riverside Public Library on “The Effect of Illinois’ Fiscal Crisis on Mental Health Services,” to be given by Heather O’Donnell of Thresholds, an agency providing healthcare, housing and other services for those living with mental illness. The program will begin at 7 p.m. and is open to the public.

“Serious mental illnesses are no different than cancer, heart disease or other medical conditions,” says O’Donnell, a lawyer who leads public policy and advocacy efforts for Thresholds. “These illnesses are treatable,” she goes on to say, “and individuals living with even a serious mental illness can recover and lead healthy, productive and fulfilling lives.”

However, due to widespread stigmas and a lack of state resources, many people with a serious mental illness go without treatment. When this happens, their mental illness worsens, they become socially isolated, and this often leads to joblessness, poverty, homelessness, clashes with the police, psychiatric hospitalizations and even life-long institutionalization.

A Thresholds’ study led by O’Donnell shows that the state’s chronic fiscal problems led the state to cut $113 million in community mental health treatment services between 2009 and 2011. The loss of treatment services in the community led to a spike in psychiatric hospitalizations for individuals who could no longer get treatment. This ended up costing the state and hospitals more than $131 million, for a net cost increase of $18 million.

The state’s lack of investment in community treatment options for mental health services has led to more than 22,000 people with a serious mental illness being institutionalized in nursing homes—not because they need that level of care, but because of a lack of investment in a community-based treatment infrastructure and affordable housing for this population.

“The average annual cost of a nursing home stay is approximately $34,000 per year,” says O’Donnell, “compared to about $18,000 for community treatment and a housing voucher. That’s a big difference.”

O’Donnell is hopeful that “The Path to Transformation,” Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s recently announced five-year plan to restructure healthcare in Illinois, combined with the state’s move to managed care, will make a big difference to people living with a mental illness. If approved by the federal government, this plan would allow Illinois to utilize $5.2 billion in federal funds that could be reinvested in community-based treatment services.

According to O’Donnell, a Medicaid waiver of this type would give Illinois a unique opportunity to make investments in the badly frayed mental health safety net that could not otherwise be made.

The Riverside branch of AAUW, which is sponsoring this event to help mark its 65-year anniversary, is hopeful that talks such as this one will bring added attention to a topic that comes up every time there’s a mass shooting.

“Sandy Hook haunts us all,” says Mary Kitzberger, a former principal who now leads the Riverside branch. “But with early intervention, there’s hope that future Sandy Hooks can be prevented. That’s not the only reason we’ve invited Heather O’Donnell to speak, but it is one reason why we should all be paying more attention to this subject.”

In addition to sponsoring lectures of a civic nature, the Riverside branch helps District 96 schools celebrate Women’s History Month and is a sponsor of Cougar D.A.R.E. It also provides yearly scholarships to young women graduating from Riverside-Brookfield High School.