To the Editor:

The canvassers at my door asked me to sign a petition for a ballot referendum to fund community mental health. I thought I understood the importance of issue. But that changed less than a week later when my husband and I came across someone lying under a large tree in the park at 47th Street and Lake Shore Drive. Even from a distance, something was wrong. As we approached, we were shocked to see that the young Black man under the tree was dead. I write to honor this beautiful young man and to urge everyone to support ongoing efforts to increase mental health resources in Chicago.

We bring strength to each other as a community by taking care of the vulnerable among us. I can’t say for sure what happened to that young man, of course, but all signs suggested he ended his own life. It’s tempting to turn away. I made a point of paying attention to him. I noticed a large wound on the side of his head and later, a gun at his feet. I noticed how, otherwise, he seemed to have cared for himself. His Dickies t-shirt was clean, tucked into his hiking shorts. His rectangular eyeglasses were placed carefully on his hip, as if by someone used to keeping them clean. The simple, black bracelet on his wrist, the geometric tattoos on his arms, his close-trimmed hair all spoke to the attention he paid to his appearance. The heavy rain dignified him by washing him clean. In Jewish tradition, someone keeps company with the dead until they are buried, and the body is carefully washed. I felt the responsibility of being with this young man at such an important time in his life and wished fervently I could do more to watch over him. I felt the universe had stepped in, bringing the rain in an act of caring. I cry with those who knew him and I’m here to connect if you want to reach out to me.

Soon we will have an opportunity to do something very concrete to ensure more mental health resources on the South Side. All but five community mental health clinics in Chicago have been closed by mayors Daley and Emmanuel in a cynical move to balance the bloated city budget at the expense of the most marginalized and vulnerable among us. The Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers is gathering signatures to reverse this trend with a ballot measure to fund opening more clinics in vulnerable neighborhoods through a tiny.025% property tax increase. This amounts to $4 — one latte, as they point out — for every $1,000 in tax. This strategy isn’t going to be a slam-dunk with everybody. Property taxes are already high and poorer property owners already pay disproportionately. Mayor Lightfoot decided to award grants to community-based organizations rather than reopen clinics. But people in pain and dependent on public transportation need clinics close by. Skeptics can take their cue from residents in West Side neighborhoods — affluent and poor — who overwhelmingly voted yes when they had the chance.

The need for accessible, high quality, affordable mental health care is urgent. For the young man I found in the park, it is too late. But for many it is not. I urge everyone to get involved in the campaign to increase mental health resources in Chicago’s most underfunded neighborhoods. Strong, community- based organizations in Chicago lead the way, including Collaborative for Community Wellness. If you or someone you know needs immediate support, call the National Suicide Prevention 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.

Jennifer Cohen

Associate Professor of Education at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project

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