Reality Check: Patients and activists protest the closure of mental health clinics on the South Side

Protestors rally in front of the Woodlawn Center, photo by Thalia Gigerenzer
The Woodlawn Center, a mental health clinic that serves the low-income community of Woodlawn, offers its clients a quiet refuge from the harsh and often bewildering realities of the outside world. But on Thursday morning, this inconspicuous one-story building became the site of a heated political protest, as a group of about thirty patients, activists and community members rallied against the potential closure of the clinic.

Consumers picking up their daily medicine grabbed hand-made protest signs designed by Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), a community organization that advocates against the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods, and gathered outside the clinic for a rally and press conference. Organized by STOP and Chicago’s Community Mental Health Board, the protest spoke out against the city’s decision to shut down four of its twelve mental health centers in response to budget cuts.

“The clinic is almost like home to me,” said William Robinson, who fears that he will not find the same down-to-earth doctors at Englewood’s mental health center, which is where former Woodlawn patients will be sent should the clinic close. “People come here just to sit around; they feel safe here.”

For many consumers at the Woodlawn Center, the slated closure of mental health clinics in low-income, African-American neighborhoods all on the South and Southeast sides of the city has turned a formerly private matter into a political issue. “We see the attack on services in the neighborhood as deeply tied to gentrification,” said Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a member of STOP and recent graduate of the University of Chicago.

“I think just the threat of the center closing has resulted in a sense of a panic for a lot of people whose hold on reality may be tenuous in the first place,” said Jan Gilmore, a clinical therapist who has been at the center since its inception in 1982.

But as patients and activists stepped up to the microphone, sharing personal stories and chanting slogans such as “Money for our patients, not for Olympics” and “Woodlawn under attack, what do we do, fight back,” it seemed that today their grasp on reality was painfully firm.

Linda Hatcher was the first to speak to the small audience of journalists from the Chicago Tribune, WGN-7, and the low-income public housing magazine Residents’ Journal. “I am bipolar and take my medications twice a day,” Hatcher said in a clear, firm voice, adding: “Without my medications I sometimes feel like killing myself.”

But while mental health may not have always been a political issue for members of the Woodlawn community, it is certainly seen as a public matter. In many low-income areas with high rates of crime and homelessness, clinics like the Woodlawn Center serve as an anchor for the community. Now, many people fear for the stability of the community.

“If we are going to save our kids, we have to first take our medicine and get ourselves on the right track,” Hatcher said, amid clapping and shouts of “tell ‘em, Linda!”

“We serve former criminals,” said Gilmore, who sees a close connection between the clinic and rates of incarceration, prostitution, and drug addiction. “This clinic serves as a lifeline to many people in this community.”

Lonnie Richardson, patients and member of STOP, said the clinic had helped him become an active member of society. “I’m off the streets, I pay taxes, I vote, I do community service,” Richardson said, “We want every body to know that we are registered voters, and we will take this to the polls if we have to!”

For Ginsberg-Jaeckle, the elephant in the room is the Olympics. “The mayor doesn’t want mentally ill people in the vicinity of the Olympics,” Ginsberg-Jaeckle said.

Many of the patients at the clinic are tenants of STOP’s subsidized housing associations. Ginsberg-Jaeckle said STOP, which saved a physical health center in Woodlawn from closure last year, would be “escalating its actions” should the clinics close.