Unequal: Black Access to Mental Health & Substance Use Services
“As a Black woman growing up in the projects of Chicago, life always felt like an uphill battle because of the barriers of systemic racism, police misconduct and violence in my community. While I was able to seize every opportunity for a better life, we must change the systems that have embedded inequality for Black individuals and communities for generations.” – Valencia King, Program Director, Thresholds.
No matter how resilient a person or community, racism—whether overt or built into societal systems over generations—is extremely dehumanizing and has a profound negative impact on mental health and wellbeing. As social justice, mental health, and substance use treatment advocates, the Thresholds community must work tirelessly to end racism of all kinds and to reduce the inequities in access to treatment in Black communities across Illinois.
Systemic racism is put into high relief when we look at the lack of access to mental health and substance use services across Chicago and Illinois, and the consequences to Black lives.
Our country has never invested sufficiently in treatment or harm reduction approaches, causing untold pain and loss of life for thousands. Untreated serious mental health and substance use conditions can lead to overdose death, poor educational and social development in children, unemployment, poverty, homelessness and criminalization.
Black communities across Illinois suffer far more than their white counterparts. Black communities on the south and west sides of Chicago have far fewer mental health resources than the mostly white north side. Neighborhoods like Englewood, Woodlawn, and others are being ravaged by gun violence, causing daily trauma with long-lasting effects, but have little access to support. Black communities in the south suburbs and across Illinois suffer similar disparities.
It is well documented that Black children and adults with mental health needs are less likely to receive medication or therapy for their condition than white children and adults.
The opioid epidemic raged for decades in Black communities, but was only acknowledged when it began impacting white lives.
Black Chicagoans are dying from opioid overdose at nearly twice the rate of white Chicagoans. West Garfield Park, Austin, and Humboldt Park have the highest overdose death rates in Illinois yet see little investment in treatment, safe-use interventions, and other services to reduce the loss of life.
Jails and prisons, where Black Illinoisans are incarcerated at nearly nine times the rate of white Illinoisans, have become the tragic alternative to treatment and affordable housing due to a lack of access to early mental health and substance use services, and the over-criminalization of drug use and poverty. Jails are often referred to as the largest mental health and substance use treatment “hospitals” in the state. Jails are not healing treatment environments.
Young Black men are 14 times more likely to experience police use of force by the Chicago Police Department than young white men. The heartbreaking reality of the combination of systemic racism and a woefully underfunded mental health and substance use treatment system means the police are often the first call in a mental health or overdose crisis where use of force is the norm, rather than de-escalation and connection to treatment.
This is a damning picture, and one that must change. The City, State and Federal Governments must:
- Invest seriously in early treatment and support services in Black communities
- Support innovative at-risk youth programs that lead to richer lives and communities
- Stop the criminalization of mental illness and substance use, and related homelessness
- Require that first responders to mental health and substance use crises be clinicians
- Increase social workers in schools and neighborhoods to foster resiliency and connection to resources
- Develop affordable housing and employment opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds due to substance use and mental illness
For generations, the demands of Black communities for equality have been met with committees, task forces and studies, but have resulted in little change or investment. The time for real change is now.
We know Mayor Lightfoot, the Chicago City Council, Governor Pritzker, the Illinois General Assembly, Illinois’ Congressional Delegation, and many other policymakers care deeply about these issues. We are committed to working tirelessly with our elected officials and fellow advocates in this fight for racial justice, to eliminating the inequities in access to mental health and substance use treatment for all those who need it, and to securing all the other crucial investments necessary to enable Black individuals and communities to thrive.