Voters in Winnebago County will decide whether to increase its sales tax by half a percent. The money would fund mental health services.
Mary Ann Abate spent 41 years in mental health services as a social worker in Rockford, 25 of them on call.
“So every night," she said, "when anyone dealt with a psychiatric emergency in the emergency rooms from Janet Wattles Center or Rosecrance after that, I was consulted.”
Abate said that gave her a good idea of what is lacking in the county’s mental health system of care.
Abate currently serves as chair of the Rockford Regional Health Council Behavior Health Committee. Made up of local community leaders and providers, it has been looking at ways to fill the gaps in mental health care in Winnebago County. She cited the recent increase in the number of suicides and opioid deaths as evidence more resources are warranted. But she said there were already shortfalls, especially for young people in need of mental health services.
“If a child anywhere under the age of twelve has a psychiatric crisis," she said, "there are no beds in this community to allow that child to be hospitalized here. They have to be transported by ambulance, and we primarily see these children going to Streamwood, Illinois.”
Abate said many lower-income people have transportation issues. That can often put routine and preventative care out of reach.
“We talk about food deserts," she said. "But we have huge mental health deserts in our community. Zip codes mean everything in terms of what’s available for these kids.”
Then, she said, there are the adults with mental health issues who end up in jail or the emergency room.
“This money, and the efforts to fill the gaps, will not only enhance the system of care for these people," she said. "It will add to their quality of life.”
Not to mention the relief on the staff -- and budgets -- of those places now straining to deal with them.
“Current providers in our area that do fantastic work in the field," she said. "They just don’t have any more capacity because funding has run out on every level. So they do whatever they can. But sometimes it’s ‘band-aiding’ approaches.”
Abate said it’s estimated that the tax would bring in between 12 and 14 million dollars. That would be dedicated solely to improving mental health services in the county – nothing else. The ballot measure would set up a community mental health board that would identify needs.
“We want to see people get the right amount of help," she said, "at the time that they need it, and not wait until the crisis is, you know, escalated.”
Abate said recent surveys indicate a majority of county voters support more funding for mental health services, especially when told the money would be strictly used for that purpose.
Abate argued that people in Winnebago County are already paying to deal with mental health care now, in the least cost-effective way possible -- through first responders, emergency rooms and jails.
Abate said other communities that have approved the tax are grateful.
“They never want to see that money disappear, once a community has it," she said, "because it becomes essential, vital dollars that the community can’t live without for these mental health services.”
Winnebago County voters will weigh in on March 17 on whether they agree with that sentiment.