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Building a compassionate community

The Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute for Mental Health Education (NRCI) at The Chicago School was founded with one mission in mind—to erase the stigma of mental illness. A conference presented earlier this year reinforced that goal.

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology recently released a national report titled, “No Health Without Mental Health,” offering insight into critical mental health issues facing the American public. On June 5, the Naomi Ruth Cohen Institute of Mental Health Education (NRCI) at The Chicago School took that mantra one step further at its 15th annual conference, inviting law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, and local leaders to a day-long discussion about an urgent need for stronger advocacy for the rights of the mentally ill.

Titled “Mental Health: Why Does It Matter? A Compassionate Community Responds,” NRCI co-founder Lawrence Cohen said the conference was designed “not only to inform and teach, but also to enable us all to learn more about the most vulnerable of our society, and how each of us can help.”

“It’s like Dickens today,” Dart told the audience of more than 300 academic leaders, mental health practitioners, and local government and agency officials at the event, held at Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Ill. “A horrible era.”

A total of 21 discussion groups were held, an unprecedented number for the event, covering such topics as loss through violent death; crisis intervention training; homeless rights and justice; restorative justice with a trauma-informed lens; and the impact of cultural and historical trauma and the interplay of trauma, addiction, and mental health in the LGBTQ community.

Mental illness in prison

Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart led a discussion about mental health in the criminal justice system with some frank remarks about his experience overseeing the Cook County Jail, which he says has inadvertently become the largest mental health institution in the U.S. On any given night, between 2,300 and 3,000 men and women housed in the jail are suffering from some level of mental illness.

“It’s like Dickens today,” Dart told the audience of more than 300 academic leaders, mental health practitioners, and local government and agency officials at the event, held at Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Ill. “A horrible era.”

As the number of institutional beds available to treat the mentally ill has shrunk from 350,000 to 35,000 over the past two decades, Dart said his only option is to run “the best mental health facility he can.”

In 2013, Dart said he started the Office of Mental Health Policy & Advocacy to identify ways to better treat mentally ill individuals caught up in the prison system. As a result, he essentially opened a mental health facility within the jail to create a safe space for inmates, bringing in volunteers to teach photography and other subjects as part of a treatment program. The program also ensures that when inmates are released, they have a safe place to go home to.

“We try to give them a roadmap for living when they leave,” he explained, adding that the complexity of intertwined issues of poverty, housing, and unemployment should not distract from the urgency of these needs. “We cannot afford to have the great debate society.”

A civil right

Dr. Mark Salzer, professor and chair of the Department of Rehabilitation Services at Temple University, delivered a similar message about the need for respect and equal rights for the mentally ill.

“The opportunity to live in the community and be valued is a civil right, not an option,” Dr. Salzer told the group, adding that community integration and involvement is just as important as medication for these patients. “It is not something we do as a question. This should be a given.”

He believes community agencies should work together to implement ways to be more supportive to those struggling with mental illness, advocating for policy changes that ensure rights of the mentally ill are protected.

“I know what having no hope feels like,” Teverbaugh told the group, sharing information about the services that The Cara (which means friend in Gaelic) Program provides to help break the cycle of homelessness and poverty.

Moderated by Dr. Tiffany Masson, dean of the Chicago Campus, the day of presentations and discussion came to a powerful end with words of resilience—and hope— from Jesse Teverbaugh, director of The Cara Program, who shared his own personal story of family loss from suicide and personal struggles with depression.

Ray of hope

“I know what having no hope feels like,” Teverbaugh told the group, sharing information about the services that The Cara (which means friend in Gaelic) Program provides to help break the cycle of homelessness and poverty. “At Cara, we offer a class called love. We tell participants to hug each other and say, ‘I love you.’ A simple but powerful thing.”

Mayra Chacon, who now directs NRCI along with TCSPP’s Center for Latino/a Mental Health, said having speakers like Teverbaugh is part of what made this year’s conference so successful: “Increasing the participation of community members who have been directly and indirectly impacted by mental illness makes all the difference.”

Cohen, who founded NRCI with his wife Marilyn when their daughter, Naomi Ruth, ended her own life in 2000, said he is inspired by how far society has come in defining mental illness and removing the stigma attached to it. However, there is still much work to be done for equal rights, advocacy, and mental health programs to serve this fragile population.

“We start with the idea that one in five have a mental illness and of the larger number, only 10 percent get treatment. Why? It’s not recognized or treatment isn’t available because of the stigma,” he says. “We’re working to put an end to that, through our programming and through community partnerships like the one with like the one with The Chicago School. We are building awareness for this as a disease, much like society built awareness for cancer. There’s been significant movement, and for that, I am grateful.”

Mitchell Hurst

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