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Exclusive: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Is Tackling The Stigma Surrounding Mental Health With Un[ ]spoken Campaign

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently spoke with Blavity about a new initiative she has launched to tackle mental health challenges and promote self-care among Chicago residents.

“Our primary focus is on combating the negative stigma around people needing mental health support,” Mayor Lightfoot said about her new Un[ ]spoken campaign. 

Mental health has been a focus of Lightfoot’s administration; she has tripled the city’s mental healthcare budget since taking office. Nevertheless, Mayor Lightfoot explained how lingering stigma concerning mental health challenges prevent people from both discussing their own needs and accessing the resources that could help them. Therefore, the mayor has prioritized efforts to challenge the dangerous shame attached to mental illness. 

When asked about disparities facing people of color and LGBTQ+ Chicagoans when it comes to mental health resources, the mayor acknowledged that there is indeed a taboo around common mental and emotional disorders like depression and anxiety. 

Mayor Lightfoot emphasized that the Un[ ]spoken campaign prioritizes ways to encourage people from vulnerable communities to conduct outreach and share stories among their peers. As noted in the press release issued by the Mayor’s Office last week, the campaign’s website will offer users tools for seeking mental health resources as well as personal stories from Chicagoans who’ve struggled with their mental health. 

Such community-focused outreach is necessary, Lightfoot argued, to “open up conversations in families, in friend networks, in faith communities, in workplaces around the challenges people are facing and why it’s so important to destigmatize mental health services and then provide people with real tools that they can use right there to help or in their community to address the issues.”

Mayor Lightfoot noted that this campaign comes at a crucial time for Chicago and the country as a whole, which have had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, protests and movements, and the economic crisis since 2020.

“There’s not a person that I know who doesn’t feel challenged given what we’ve all experienced,” the mayor said. 

One of the hopes for the Un[ ]spoken campaign is to promote preventative measures that stave off acute mental health crises. The mayor asserted that she is a strong advocate of self-care, while recognizing that many people need access to resources in order to maintain their mental and emotional well-being.

As such, the campaign will promote healthy activities to help Chicagoans maintain and protect their mental health. The mayor used the analogy of pre-flight instructions, which inform airplane passengers about securing one’s own oxygen mask during an emergency before assisting others. In the same way, the mayor says, Chicagoans will be directed towards self-care exercises and activities.

“If you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of anybody else,” she asserted. 

Beyond reducing stigma and promoting access to services, the mayor’s new initiative is also testing out a substantial reform in the way first responders approach crisis calls. The first version, which the Chicago Tribune has referred to as a “co-responder pilot program,” will see police officers specially trained in crisis-intervention techniques partnered with clinicians to respond to apparent mental health crises in select neighborhoods. In instances where officers assess that there is not a significant risk of violence, the clinicians would be given the lead to de-escalate the situation and connect the person in crisis with the appropriate services or facilities.

The second model, Mayor Lightfoot explained, would have “clinicians by themselves and responding to calls for service,” in situations deemed low-risk. Both models are intended to assess calls for the potential for violence, and then have clinicians take the lead in non-violent situations. Based on data gathered from the pilot program, the mayor hopes to expand these new approaches to crisis response beyond the neighborhoods of the initial phase.

Overall, Mayor Lightfoot sees this new initiative as a crucial component of healthcare for Chicago, especially as the city recovers from the various traumas of the past couple of years.

“People were challenged with mental health and depression issues and addiction issue way before the pandemic hit,” but these problems became magnified by the pandemic. As Chicago and the country battle the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, mental healthcare will be an important part of that fight.

“I also know that we can’t fully recover as a city unless people are feeling well,” the mayor believes, “and it’s not just about their physical wellness, it’s about wellness of mind, body and spirit.”

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