Mental health care system falling short

Marisa Maldonado Column

A doctor’s office might not be the most comfortable place for people to talk about their darkest moments.

That’s why the Evanston Psychological Group is holding a free, anonymous screening for depression and other mental illnesses Thursday at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“It offers a way to help people in a non-threatening way,” said Dawn Nofzinger, the group’s post-doctoral fellow.

The screening, part of National Depression Screening Day, offers a good chance for people to take the first step in caring for their mental health. That includes NU students, who could benefit from getting an on-the-spot screening instead of waiting several weeks for a consultation at Counseling and Psychological Services.

The Evanston Psychological Group should be commended for taking diagnosis into the community, especially since depression is the world’s leading cause of disability, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

But one screening can’t compensate for a national deficiency in mental health care.

There is a definite need for more outreach. About one in five adults, 44.3 million people nationwide, suffer from a mental illness. Many don’t even realize it.

Past screenings have shown that there is some need for more outreach in Evanston. Ten years ago Evanston’s Department of Mental Health Services was able to refer a handful of residents to services after they were diagnosed with depression at a screening, according to Harvey Saver, the department’s assistant director.

After the diagnosis residents still face a long wait for professional care. The Evanston Psychological Group gives referrals to the people it talks to and offers a list of free or reduced-fee clinics for those without insurance. But in many cases there is a waiting time of several weeks to see a mental health professional, Saver said.

“In some cases … the only opportunity someone may have is when they’re in crisis,” he said.

There would be fewer life-threatening mental health crises if services weren’t so constrained. Public outreach efforts like depression screenings should happen on a regular basis as opposed to being a one-day-only opportunity.

“It’s hard to say to anyone, ‘Today’s your day to be suicidal and come in and talk about it,'” Saver said.

There are myriad psychological organizations in Evanston. One of them should follow the Evanston Psychological Group’s lead and hold a screening during the winter — the season when most people feel depressed.

For diseases as complex as mental illnesses are, the diagnosis should be followed with professional care. Unfortunately the mental health services in Evanston and across the country aren’t ready to handle the people who could take advantage of them.