By Frederick H. Lowe
A standing room only crowd attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center, which opened last week with the goal of diverting individuals, suffering from mental illness or drug abuse from Cook County Jail, to the center where they will receive care as outpatients.
The Center is a joint partnership venture of the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center, Habilitative Systems Inc. and the Cook County Health & Hospitals Systems, which funded the facility. The Center is housed in a one-story 5,000-square foot building at 4133 W. Madison.
Dr. Rashad K. Saafir, Bobby Wright’s president and CEO, who came up with the idea for the Center, which is funded for $4.5 million over three years, said the 21-member staff will treat 700 or more individuals annually who are living in East and West Garfield Park, Austin and North Lawndale. The Center also offers mobile crisis services, which deploys professionals where they are needed.
“The idea for the Center is in response to concerns about the large number of people with mental illness who are incarcerated or housed in inpatient facilities,” Saafir said. “When these individuals are disconnected from their community, there is discomfort and trauma exacerbates their symptoms. We want to evaluate the individual, determine care, reduce the impact of negative events in their lives, and keep them connected to the community to minimize the effects of mental illness.”
Black psychiatrist Frantz Fanon pioneered treatment in which the mentally ill worked or lived in their communities while being treated instead of being confined to mental hospitals, according to his biography “Frantz Fanon” by David Macey.
Saafir estimates the Center should save Cook County Jail, which Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has repeatedly described as the state’s largest mental hospital and one of the nation’s largest, an estimated $2 million to $3 million a year.
In addition to treating individuals suffering from mental illness, the Center’s staff will also treat individuals suffering from opioid addiction, a major problem in the neighborhoods served by the Center, said State Representative La Shawn K. Ford of the 8th District, who spoke at the ribbon cutting.
In 2016, the Chicago Urban League reported that African Americans accounted for 39.3 percent of the deaths from fentanyl, heroin and other opioids compared to 25.1 percent for whites. Residents of the mostly black neighborhood of Austin suffered the highest death rates from opioids, the Urban League reported.
Donald J. Dew, president and CEO of Habilitative Systems Inc., said the Center provides residents “with an unprecedented opportunity to address the opioid crisis and mental illness and to help clients cope with recovery from trauma.”
The Center, which was brightly decorated with gold and green balloons, however, is an island in an ocean of despair. Outside the Center’s door, men wearing dirty white T-shirts sat on heavy pieces of wood drinking liquor from bottles in brown paper bags. A store a few feet away was selling used refrigerators and other used appliances. A business woman was cooking whole chickens on an outdoor grill. Down the center from the Center there were vacant lots filled with empty soda cans, candy wrappers and other garbage. The vacant lots were surrounded by boarded up buildings.
Second Triage Facility Funded by the County
This is second triage center funded by Cook County Health & Hospitals System. The first opened in 2017 in Roseland on the city’s far South Side. The planning for that facility was announced in 2016.
Saafir and Dew visited Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and Roseland to study both models.
Both models are very different, Dew explained. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois’ crisis intervention and mental health screening is housed in four hospitals—Thorek Memorial Hospital, Swedish Covenant Hospital, Methodist Hospital and Community First Medical Center.
Blue Cross/Blue Shield Community Health Initiative recently awarded a $50,000 grant to Lutheran Social Services of Illinois for mental health screenings in the emergency department at Community First Medical Center on Chicago’s northwest side.
Roseland’s triage center is located in a former police station, which may have made area residents reluctant to go there, Dew said.
Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center’s treatment approach is a hybrid of those employed by both facilities.
The Center is in a one-story former office building with comfortable furniture, individual interview rooms, examination rooms, a wellness center, and an area for refreshments, including fruit and water, a waiting room, a reception area, a quiet room and even a shower for patients, Dew said.
The office is politically correct with each room named in honor of area politicians like the Danny K. Davis Wellness Center. Davis is a U.S. Congressman who represents the district.
Individuals welcomed to the center also will be able to practice yoga and tai chi to help reduce stress, added Dew, a licensed social worker. The Center’s walls are painted soothing colors with the goal of creating a calm environment for patients.
When the Roseland Triage Center opened, Dr. Jay Shannon, CEO of Cook County Health & Hospitals System, said at the time Community Triage Center would reduce the number of detainees in Cook County Jail who are mentally ill as well as the high cost associated with housing them. In 2013, the county spent $143 per detainee per day on housing, food, health care and security, Shannon said.
In 2017, Dart wrote in a paper headlined “Criminalization of Mental Illness” that “the majority of inmates are in jail for nonviolent offenses closely associated with mental illness.”
He acknowledged, however, that the jail must take everyone the police arrest.
“Police have discretion to arrest or divert to the hospital; prosecutors have discretion to charge or not charge; judges have discretion in setting bond. But [jail] administrators could only stand by as their institutions morphed into mental hospitals,” Dart said.
The role of the center is to reduce the number of those arrested being sent to jail and even prevent out-of-control individuals from being killed by police.
Chicago Alderman Jason C. Ervin, whose 28th Ward includes Austin, West and East Garfield Park and Austin, briefly spoke at the ribbon-cutting, telling attendees that if the center had existed on December 26, 2015, it may have prevented the double killings of Bette Jones, a 55-year-old grandmother, and Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year-old college student, by Robert Rialmo, a Chicago Police officer.
LeGrier had called police seeking help because he may have been suffering a psychotic episode. Instead he got an incompetent police operator who did nothing to help him, setting in motion a tragedy. The police department later suspended her.
Rialmo shot to death Jones when she opened the door to let him inside the building at 4710 W. Erie. Rialmo claimed he shot to death LeGrier when the teenager charged him wielding a metal baseball bat.
The center’s staff is trained to work with police and in some cases go on calls with them which has been done and is being done in other cities, including Memphis, Tennessee. In 1987, a Memphis cop shot to death a mentally ill man who was cutting himself with a knife and threatening others.
The unnamed man became more agitated when the officers arrived and he charged them with his knife. The cops fired their guns, killing him. Shortly afterwards, Memphis police formed a special unit with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee to develop safer approaches to handling the mentally ill through Crisis Intervention Training.
NAMI or police officers are trained to work with the mentally ill can’t be everywhere. Following the killings of LeGrand and Jones, several individuals, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was at the scene of the killings most of the next day, wondered where were representatives from NAMI? There weren’t any, he was told.
The Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center’s staff is trained to de-escalate a confrontation before it explodes with someone getting hurt or killed. The staff is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
The Center’s staff will work with police from the 11th and 15th districts, Dew said. Rialmo was assigned to the 15th district when he killed LeGrier and Jones.
Saafir is a former Marine who served in Vietnam. He told the audience that he suffers from PTSD and tinnitus, (constant ringing in the ears), and that the Center is needed to assist individuals in managing chronic conditions.
He participates in “forest bathing,” or what the Japanese refer to as shinrin yoku, in which exposure to nature creates positive calming neuro-psychological effects.