A reprieve for North River Mental Health Center?

Funding cuts may force the city to close four mental health clinics, but Dr. Terry Mason, health commissioner, announced yesterday that North River Mental Health Center may be spared.

Members of Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, a group that formed to support services at the Northwest Side clinic, heard the news at the Chicago Board of Health Meeting.

The group protested the closing last week, presenting signed letters to the mayor asking him to keep the clinic open. They also met with Alderman William Banks (D-36) to strategize how to stop the closings.

"I think our protest is having an effect," says Rosemary Tirio, member of the Coalition.

Members of the coalition met today with Mayor Daley's Chief of Staff, Paul Volpe, to talk at length about their concerns.

No one from the group or the mayor's office could be reached for comment on the meeting.

Mason says he will make the decision within the next two weeks, once it's clear just what resources his department will have.

Department of Public Health spokesperson Tim Hadac says while Mason is doing all he can to keep North River open, it may not be possible financially.

"If the recession worsens and resources are strained even more, or if we have to endure another cut in state funding, centers like North River could be consolidated into other centers," says Hadac.

Hadac says $1.2 million in state cuts have spread mental health resources too thin, and that consolidating the clincs will improve services at the remaining locations.

"We want to provide effective mental health services to as many people as we can," says Hadac. "Yet government, like everyone else, must live within its means."

But mental health advocates say cutting services now will only mean the city pays more later.

For every $1 spent on mental health services, the city saves $5 in future costs, according to Suzanne Andriukaitis, executive director of the National Association on Mental Illness of Greater Chicago.

She says without a place to go, people experiencing mental illness will crowd other essential city services.

"They wind up in hospital beds. They wind up in jail," says Andruikaitis. "Cutting the servies for mental health centers is totally foolish because it will drive up expenditures in a number of other areas."

Although North River may remain open, the other four clinics, all of which are on the South and West Sides of the city, will close, according to Hadac.

Andriukatis says shutting down services in those parts of the city means putting already vulnerable communities at risk.

"It's basic discrimination," she says. "It's criminal to take services away from them. There aren't enough services now, and historically, there have never been enough."

Daily News staff writer Megan Cottrell can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.

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