To reopen mental health clinics in Chicago, we need to address worker shortage

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s proposal to reopen mental health clinics that were shuttered during former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure should be applauded. The new mayor is prioritizing increasing mental health care access to Chicago’s most vulnerable residents.

Mental health care, a critical component of overall wellness, has surged as a policy priority across the U.S. and Illinois during the last several years. However, the country and state face an alarming shortage of mental health professionals, which poses serious challenges to individuals and communities — and to Johnson’s plan to reopen clinics.

According to a 2019 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately one in five adults in the U.S., or around 47.6 million people, experienced a mental illness in 2018. The report also revealed that approximately 11.4 million adults had a serious mental illness that resulted in significant functional impairment. This prevalence underlines the immense need for mental health workers nationwide.

However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that by 2025, the country will have a shortage of about 250,000 mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and psychiatric nurses. This data shows that the current supply of mental health professionals is far from meeting the existing demand, leading to vast service gaps across the country.

The situation in Illinois is an example of this national crisis. The state serves as a microcosm of the broader U.S. and has been grappling with a shortage of mental health professionals for years. A recent report by the Illinois Psychiatric Society highlighted that out of the 102 counties in Illinois, 91 lack sufficient psychiatrists. This shortage means that individuals seeking help often have to travel long distances, face long wait times or go without necessary care — which in turn jeopardizes the well-being of millions of people who are unable to access timely and adequate care.

The scarcity of mental health workers in Illinois disproportionately affects certain communities. 

Rural areas, for instance, are particularly underserved, with 60% of rural Americans living in a mental health professional shortage area. Additionally, marginalized communities, such as those who are low-income, uninsured, and racial or ethnic minorities, are disproportionately affected by the shortage.

Retiring workers, low pay contribute to shortage

The shortage of mental health workers in both the U.S. and Illinois can be attributed to several factors. 

First, the aging mental health workforce is retiring at a faster pace than it is being replaced. The American Psychological Association reports that 40% of practicing psychologists are 60 years or older, and are hence nearing retirement. Second, compensation for mental health professionals, especially in public sectors, is not competitive with other medical fields, which disincentivizes professionals from joining the field. Lastly, the stigmatization of mental health issues could also be contributing to the lack of interest in pursuing a career in this field.

Illinois specifically is confronting a serious shortage of mental health professionals. In 2022, the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. J.B. Pritzker approved a new state budget that included a historic $140 million annual increase for Illinois’ long financially starved mental health care providers. It was a welcome and impressive first-step investment. Yet, it remains imperative for additional government investment in strategies that address this workforce shortage, such as incentivizing mental health professions and investing in telehealth solutions. 

Only by federal, state, and local governments relentlessly addressing this workforce gap can Mayor Johnson hope to adequately respond to the mental health needs of Chicago’s residents.

Gerald “Jud” DeLoss, who has practiced health law for 25 years, has served as CEO of the Illinois Association for Behavioral Health since 2020.

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