Dixon effort spotlights call for Illinois mental health and substance abuse reforms

DIXON, Illinois - Drug abuse and mental illness often intersect, experts say, creating a call for help.

"When somebody is newly ill, they're more likely to be receptive to treatment," said Mary Brokaw, a mental health advocate, who detailed her son's struggles on Monday, June 19.

Dixon is attracting statewide attention for a community program that emphasizes quick access to treatment for certain offenders rather than languishing in jail.

"I think it's an innovative approach that could be duplicated anywhere," said Cathy Ferguson-Allen, Lee County Health Department.

Dixon's outpouring prompted a House Substance Abuse Subcommittee hearing at the Old Lee County Courthouse.  Parents like Brokaw, made logical appeals for change.

"Drug offenders often use drugs to cover the symptoms of their mental illness," she said.  "So, it only makes sense to cover and treat the symptoms of mental illness in conjunction with those problems of substance abuse."

Her son's delayed mental illness diagnosis details flaws in the system that need correction, she said.

"I've experienced what it's like to have different entities working solely by themselves," she continued.

While demand for services is high, cuts and staffing shortages make it tougher to provide help.

Brokaw and others argue that early intervention is less costly than waiting. Rural areas, though, find it tougher to hire and retain medical professionals.

"Access to health care, access to mental health care, access to substance abuse services in rural communities in Illinois is certainly not anywhere near where it needs to be," said IL Rep. Lou Lang, (D) Skokie.

Cuts at the state and federal levels make a bad situation worse.  This session hopes to inspire new progress for Illinois communities.

"Not just expressing what's wrong with the system, but showing examples of when change has helped," Brokaw concluded.