To your mental health: Save our ship

By Jason Florin | For the Bugle

If you are beyond sick and tired of hearing about the fiscal problems in Illinois, I understand completely. There seems to be no end in sight to a crisis many years in the making, and one that threatens to take us through an entire fiscal year without an approved budget.

My purpose here is not to change your politics, but to share some of my knowledge and experience as it relates to funding social services in our state.

Worth every penny

We pay our social service workers shockingly low wages in Illinois. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social and human service assistants in Illinois make just $28,770 annually, versus a national average of $29,270. Substance abuse counselors don’t fair much better, pulling in just $34,000 per year – well below the national average of $39,000.

My own work history has taken me to hospitals, residential treatment facilities and jails. For most of this time, even with years of experience and an advanced degree, I made no more than $12-$14 per hour.

This despite being bitten twice, punched square in the chest once, having a chair thrown at me, taking profanity in every conceivable combination of words you can imagine, and often dedicating 60 or more hours in a week to a struggling agency or program. And my experiences are not unusual.

Inevitably, a question arises about how to afford increased budgets for social service agencies in the face of an already massive state deficit. Won’t spending more on services take away from other important government functions, including infrastructure and education? At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, the answer is no, it won’t.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every dollar invested in addiction treatment services yields a return of $4 to $7 by reducing drug-related crimes, and lowering criminal justice and healthcare costs. In addition, benefits are seen from fewer interpersonal conflicts, greater workplace productivity and fewer drug-related accidents, including overdoses and deaths. Other types of services see similar financial benefits.

The Illinois Department of Human Services eats up a large share of taxpayer money, and some of the money they receive could be better spent.

In my time in this industry, I’ve seen new leaders come in and propose various ways of supporting social services, but often they seemed to ignore one critical fact: there is already a long-standing network of functional, affordable agencies throughout the state. But pet projects or far-flung grant ideas have undermined efforts of many agencies by awarding dollars to fly-by-night groups that formed simply to appeal to the people in charge at the time. In the end, these groups closed up or left the state, while the committed organizations have suffered.

It has become a well-established rite of spring that agencies across the state must band together, protest in Springfield, write letters to representatives and flood their local papers with letters explaining why they should be supported. Despite operating with mere skeleton crew staffs that work with highly challenging populations, these programs are forced to justify their existence every year.

Questions get raised: Do we really need to pay for people with heroin addiction? Can’t families just support their sick family members? Why does someone with schizophrenia need a permanent case manager?

The work done by social service providers encompasses a huge range of important functions, including caring for the most vulnerable populations.

These professionals serve in nursing homes, mental health hospitals, substance abuse treatment centers, domestic violence agencies, homeless shelters and many other areas.

Ultimately, we need a combination of approaches that involves faith groups, private contributions and government support. And it is crucial that people see their money being used effectively and not wasted. Illinois has a network of strong providers that it needs to make the most of, as part of a stable long-term budget solution.

It is time to recognize the incredibly difficult work that agencies are doing and have been doing in the name of helping others. Because these agencies adhere to strict state regulations for operation, they also survive on the money allotted to them in each year’s state budget. When the agencies are given an opportunity, they provide invaluable services that benefit the state fiscally and socially.

Titanic part II?

At this point, it’s a fair question to ask whether Illinois’ fiscal situation is beyond repair. Although unthinkable to many, the possibility of a state going through bankruptcy should not be ignored. Dramatic budgetary crises have played out recently in Greece, Puerto Rico and Detroit, and it’s not as if the fiscal problems in Illinois are new. Politicians in Springfield have been well aware of an impending financial crisis for many years, which is perhaps now unfixable, or soon could be.

I am reminded of a friend who held a job where he began falling behind in his work. After a while, he realized that he could not catch up, but rather than telling his boss or limiting the number of new projects he took on, he actually began accepting more work.

He did so realizing that he would never complete any of it, but he figured that he would hold on as long as possible.

This strategy worked for a number of weeks as everyone thought that he must be doing a great job because he was taking on so much work. Before long, however, the ruse was uncovered and he was let go.

Is Illinois in a similar state of affairs, with our leaders pulling a ruse on us? Are we hearing warnings about an approaching iceberg when the party leaders are aware that we already hit the iceberg a long time ago? Is our fate sealed?

If that is in fact the case, then it will result in a terrible tragedy for many across Illinois, and especially for those in the social services.

Jason Florin has 15 years of experience working in mental health and substance abuse treatment. He is currently an assistant professor and coordinator of Human Services at College of DuPage. He holds a master’s degree in Health Science from Governors State University, in addition to national and state certifications in addictions counseling.

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