We asked candidates running for State Representative in the area the we serve a few questions about mental illness & how they plan to advocate for those experiencing it. Below are the answers of those who answered, as well as the set of mental health facts relevant to Illinois that we sent along with them:
Question 1: We are experiencing a shortage of mental health and addiction care providers. What is your position on improving access to mental health and addiction care in our state?
Marci Suelzer (Democrat, IL 52): Rauner’s draconian budget stand-off compromised access for many because community mental health centers were forced to shut down and/or layoff staff. This was unconscionable!! I believe that it is essential to revitalize community mental health programs, beginning with early diagnosis and treatment and continuing through supportive/transitional living programs. Funding must be found to support these programs! In addition, Illinois needs to pass strong mental health parity legislation so that insurance companies will reimburse providers and soften the cost for consumers. Finally, we need to make tele-counseling permanent. The pandemic has shown us that tele-counseling can be effective with a variety of conditions. Plus, the availability of telehealth would enable those who are unable to travel to an appointment to a received treatment. I also support the extension of prescribing privileges to PhD level mental health professionals. Most psychopharmaceuticals are prescribed by a primary care physician with little understand of the medications and little training in the diagnosis of mental illness.
Alia Sarfraz (Green, IL 52): Mental health starts with good leadership, the foods we eat, more holistic lifestyle and a better connection with one another. My platform also looks into how we are better able to achieve this. Among some initiatives please see how I have broken down the key issues when it comes to answering your question:
I am for the position of Medicare for All. People deserve to have the option of electing to pick between having Medicare as an option or their own private health insurance. Access to mental health will be more efficient if an allowance for that is made and it is included in the health insurance plans. Having healthcare will allow for greater participation efforts in having people take care of their mental health needs.
Since the pandemic has started, we have also seen an increase in marijuana use; primarily used to cope with stress and anxiety. There are pros and cons of this, while alcohol use has gone down as a result; the reasons why people look to escape and numb experiences needs to be addressed. Mental health professionals are key when it comes to the underlying issue.
I would like to see down time in schools utilized more, and mindfulness with meditation be practiced. A lot of the anger we see channelled into the world is due to mismanaged emotion(s). We need to help people to be more in tune with their own self. I feel that the learning of how to manage and discuss emotions in schools and at a younger age will prove beneficial as the children grow older. It will also help them navigate relationships as well. There is too much focus on IQ and not enough on EQ.
Stress at the workplace is another contributing factor to a decline in health levels of people, with increased cortisol. We need a healthier work/life balance. The cost of living and not enough vacation time is making people become more robotic and less human. It’s time we started prioritizing ourselves and connected with our loved ones more.
Chris Bos (Republican, IL 51): We absolutely need to increase access to care, whether that be through community organizations, non-profits, or schools. One of the challenges is that people don’t know where to turn at first. To address this, I think we need to not only increase awareness about access to care, but broaden the avenues of available care in our communities so it is easier for people to find and access care when they need it. We also need to share stories of hope to inspire a new generation of individuals who want to become providers to address the shortage in the long-term.
Mary Edly-Allen (Democrat, IL 51): Mental health is critical in supporting overall health. We must support legislation that increases access to mental health and addiction care, such as tele-health services and other innovative ways to increase access to care.
Tom Morrison (Republican, IL 54): Like so many other critical human service needs, the issue often comes down to state and local funding shortages. At both the state and local levels, annually increasing pension obligations continue to consume larger percentages of overall revenues. Without meaningful pension reform, our state and local government budgets will continue to be severely strained to provide necessary services.
Those individuals and groups who are pushing for tax increases alone to supplement budgets will find that the additional revenues will be swallowed up by constitutionally guaranteed pension payments and not be sufficient to increase funding for human services like mental health and addiction care. Furthermore, employment layoffs due to an increasingly difficult state business climate will push even more Illinois residents to an extremely vulnerable position.
During this pandemic, we have enormous needs to provide mental health and addiction care for state residents, but our state’s fiscal strain is incapable of providing that care. The structural spending reforms that some of us have been working so hard to implement cannot be delayed any further. With or without further tax increases, structural spending reforms have to happen, or the situation will continue to get worse.
Question 2: For many people, the initial point of care for their mental health condition or substance use disorder begins with the criminal justice system. What is your plan to advance crisis intervention services in the community while also providing treatment and alternatives to incarceration for those already involved in the criminal justice system?
Alia Sarfraz (Green, IL 52): Reforms and rehabilitative measures including the feeling of hope and optimism need to be instilled in juveniles. They need to know that there is a way out of gang culture which is prevalent among youth. Aside from that, mentors, as well as, people that can help them with any trauma that has been experienced are necessary. A person’s past does not define their future and they need to know this internally and from external sources as well. Only a therapist that can work one on one with their needs for rehabilitation will be able to help them and keep them from going back. The reason why violence was resorted to needs to be investigated and dealt with, for that is the issue at hand. I do not believe punitive measures are preventative or helpful in such cases, especially when dealing with juveniles for minor offenses.
Chris Bos (Republican, IL 51): I will work with our state’s attorney’s office and local law enforcement to increase awareness and training about mental health and substance use issues. I think the Lake County Opioid Initiative is a perfect example of a local effort between law enforcement, communities and non-profits that has become a national model for addressing mental health and substance abuse through rehabilitation, and I want to see more avenues like this explored. This issue is also particularly important to me because of the organization I work for to rescue children from sexual exploitation and trafficking. We provide housing, mentoring, education and trauma-informed therapeutic care. Without our services, many of these girls would have ended up in the criminal justice system rather than a safe place where they can receive the hope and care they need to start their healing journey toward productive futures.
Mary Edly-Allen (Democrat, IL 51): Addiction is a disease and it should be treated as such. One of my local police departments has invested in using social workers to support their officers’ work. I also support programs such as the Way Out Program here in Lake County. This program is designed to fast-track those struggling with addiction to substance abuse programs and services, rather than incarceration.
Tom Morrison (Republican, IL 54): I will advocate for law enforcement to have dedicated staff to assist with situations that are mental health or addiction related. I support de-escalation training for officers to help them appropriately handle calls involving mental health crises. We should emphasize rehabilitation for substance abuse, not lengthy incarceration.
Marci Suelzer (Democrat, IL 52): It is tragic that the only residential available for many mentally ill individuals are jails or prisons! This needs to be addressed by (1) revitalizing community mental health services; (2) funding care for those experiencing homelessness; (3) requiring all police officers to be certified in Crisis Intervention Training; (4) establishing a VIABLE mental health court diversion program; (5) ensuring that all police departments have social workers/counselors available and on call.
Lake County does have a mental health court — in THEORY. When only 19 individuals availed themselves of it over a period of several years, it is clear that it is fundamentally flawed. I have had conversations with Eric Rinehart (who is running for Lake Co. State’s Attorney) and he has a number of reforms that will enable MH Court to start to live up to its promise.
Mentally ill individuals are the most stigmatized and maltreated population in the penal system. There needs to be safe housing for them. There also needs to be medication management and counseling available.
Question 3: Rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal behavior are all rising among our teens and young adults, but the time from first symptoms (usually around age fourteen) to treatment continues to be almost a decade. What would you do to make sure that more individuals get the help they need when they first need it?
Chris Bos (Republican, IL 51): There needs to be a multi-front approach — first, we need to destigmatize mental health symptoms among our youth so rather than feeling discouraged by their peers, they feel encouraged to seek help when they need it. At the same time, provide more resources for parents, teachers, and coaches about how to start the conversation. I’m very thankful that a teacher recognized a need for one of my own children that allowed us to provide a safe environment to process what was going on and allow us to seek the best treatment option. Not every family is as lucky as we were, which is why I feel it is so important to provide the resources that allow parents and educators to recognize when there is a need and create the safe environment for young people to seek help if they need it.
Mary Edly-Allen (Democrat, IL 51): We must break the stigma surrounding mental health. That begins with honest, open conversations. It is never too early to begin educating and discussing mental health in our school health programs. Additionally, teachers need to be educated in mental wellness and be given the tools to identify students who are struggling. I would like to see our schools teach vocabulary as it relates to mental health and incorporate mental health discussions into the classroom.
Tom Morrison (Republican, IL 54): These rates are rising, and this year has seen an even sharper increase due to efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19. With the dramatic shift toward remote learning, school-age children and teens have lost the reliable routine, real-life peer and teacher interaction, and support system that has historically been a major part of attending school. Restoring normalcy as soon as reasonably possible while practicing health guidelines is critical at this time to address the immediate increase in youth depression and anxiety.
Social media use among teens is now recognized as a correlating factor for teen depression, anxiety, and suicidality, particularly among girls. We need to teach children and teens the proper use and boundaries of social media and electronic interaction, which can distort reality and lead to increasing isolation, depression, and addiction.
Marci Suelzer (Democrat, IL 52): As a country, we need to take mental illness seriously. NAMI programs are extraordinarily important in this regard. But, equally essential is having enough trained professionals and health centers to help both the consumers and their families. I lecture on the warning signs of suicide and how to intervene to community and church groups. I am always surprised that there is so much stigma and so many myths about these illnesses. There needs to be required mental health education for students, teachers, administrators and pastors. We need to teach how to talk to a person who appears to be depressed or anxious and we need to take their complaints seriously!
Alia Sarfraz (Green, IL 52): Connection with people has become more lacking in youth and adolescents due to social media and the utilization of gaming and other tools which are computer based. Online cyber bullying is another cause of conflict that adds pressure. Also, children at school are taught to focus on IQ more than EQ, the skills to be equipped with both is what gives them success in life. We need to prioritize the EQ and show how it is done.
I also sense that bullying has not been addressed as much as it needs to be in school. It all comes back to toxic relationships and working knowledge of how to navigate this path and for a toxic person to identify personality traits and self-awareness early on. Often, these are learned behaviors which need intervention and self reflection; it is better that these be identified the sooner the better.
Relationships at home are dysfunctional at times and then young adults also feel burdened by these.
All of the above mean that private access in a safe space is required for teens and young adults. There needs to be more group therapy and less shame around the talk of needing help. We need to help these folks get empowered via youtube, zoom conference coaching, health services at school or the local village hall.
Question 4: Do you have a wellness routine?
Mary Edly-Allen (Democrat, IL 51): Yes, years of therapy have taught me to ‘put the oxygen mask on myself first’. A balanced diet as well as a daily exercise routine help keep my stress level low. I have learned to pay attention to my emotions and visit my therapist for regular checkups.
Tom Morrison (Republican, IL 54): I do my best to eat healthy, drink plenty of water, and get adequate sleep. I engage in stress-reducing activities like walking, bike riding, reading and prayer, and weekly/daily dedicated family time.
Marci Suelzer (Democrat, IL 52): Right this moment, with working full-time, campaigning what feels like full-time, preparing to teach a two-weekend graduate-level course on Crisis Counseling next month, it is absolutely essential to practice self-care. I try to spend at least 1/2 hour a day reading a fluffy cozy mystery and/or watching a documentary. Everyone’s version of self-care looks different!!! 🙂 I also make it a practice to take vitamins and spend at least a few minutes in prayer or meditation each day. My home office window looks out on the back yard, so I also take time to watch the squirrels and birds.
Alia Sarfraz (Green, IL 52): I meditate deeply, use faith and watch closely what my mind and body takes in from the ears, eyes and mouth. I pray and connect with the Almighty on a daily basis, multiple times a day. Exercise helps me cope with stress too. Surrounding myself with people that help me stay uplifted and focused is important.
Chris Bos (Republican, IL 51): As challenging as it is during a campaign, I always make sure to focus on getting enough rest and always set aside a time of quiet prayer and reflection each morning. I also maintain a small group of trusted individuals that I can speak openly with to process life and its challenges together to ensure we all have an outlet amongst ourselves to stay centered.
Question 5: What gives you hope within Illinois mental health system?
Tom Morrison (Republican, IL 54): There are many excellent people and organizations that are constantly working to improve the Illinois mental health system, despite the many challenges that exist.
Marci Suelzer (Democrat, IL 52): My fantastic classmates who are making a real difference in people’s lives. Many of them are in community counseling but even those in private practice use sliding scales to make sure that people can get the help that they need. And, my students — who are determined, passionate, and dedicated to become outstanding professionals.
I’m also very pleased that Governor Pritzker made sure that mental health was included in his tele-health executive order and that he acted preemptively to short-circuit barriers that insurance companies might have imposed.
Alia Sarfraz (Green, IL 52): Recognition of the fact and level of awareness that people have is often the first step that is made towards wellness. This is the case and we need to start to lay the groundwork. The conversation is there, and the movement needs to begin. That’s all it takes.
Chris Bos (Republican, IL 51): Organizations like yours that are advocating for this critical issue to seek resources and address the mental health stigma in our culture. There is no one size fits all when it comes to dealing with mental health or substance use; it takes working together in common cause.
Mary Edly-Allen (Democrat, IL 51): Illinois continues to be a leader in many areas, including discussions surrounding mental health and addiction services. Recently, a Lake County hospital received a grant from the state of Illinois for a Trauma Recovery Center. This is just one example of how Illinois has put mental health in the forefront. Currently, the COVID pandemic is having an adverse effect on the mental health of all Illinois’ citizens. In response, Illinois launched a mental health hotline for those who are struggling with stress related to the pandemic. Having served on the newly formed Mental Health Committee it gives me hope that we will continue the vital discussions regarding overall mental wellness and maintain Illinois’ leadership on mental health issues.
Mental Health in Illinois:
-1,526,000 adults in Illinois have a mental health condition. That’s more than 13 times the population of Springfield.
-4,878,923 people in Illinois live in a mental health professional shortage area.
-50% of mental illness begins by age 14 and 75% by age 24
-About 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails every year — many because they didn’t get the treatment they needed.
-1 out of every 8 emergency department visits involves a mental health or substance use condition.
(References can be found at www.nami.org/policystats)
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Visit iwillvote.com to find a location to vote or drop off a ballot.
To learn more about Marci Suelzer (www.voteformarci.com), Alia Sarfraz (www.votealia.site), Chris Bos (www.chrisbos.us), Mary Edly-Allen (www.maryforil.com) and Tom Morrison’s (www.repmorrison54.com) campaigns by visiting their websites.