Arwady optimistic about policymakers’ focus on mental health, but cautious on funding

Chicago’s top doctor said this week she appreciates the recent focus from policymakers on ways to improve the city’s mental health infrastructure, though concerns remain on how to fund those services.

Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said during her Tuesday Facebook live event that she supports Mayor Brandon Johnson’s prioritization of public health and mental health, as well as calls from supporters to increase funding for those services.

The vast majority of funding for the agency comes from the federal government — and many of those dollars are tied to one-time grants that are set to run out, she said.

“Under (former Mayor Lori) Lightfoot … we had a lot more investment in public health, including at the city level,” Arwady said. “And I’m confident that Mayor Johnson is going to continue to build and sustain that.”

Her comments came a day after a Chicago City Council committee heard testimony on an ordinance that would reopen the city’s shuttered mental health clinics, a stance supported by Johnson. The plan would also give the health department the ability to send out response teams staffed by paramedics and social workers to address mental health crises.

Arwady pushed back against comments raised during Monday’s hearing that accused her and the department of supporting the closures, saying that “in no way are we … opposed to clinics.” But she noted physical sites are limited, especially in their flexibility in providing care in certain areas where gaps may exist and when it comes to treating the homeless population and individuals who do not show up for scheduled appointments.

Johnson said during his campaign that he would replace Arwady, in part because of her unwillingness to support reopening the clinics.

Matt Richards, the department’s deputy commissioner of behavioral health, said during Monday’s committee hearing that the office is prepared to support the initiative.

“We commit very sincerely to be a partner with this mayor, with the chairwoman, with the folks in this room … to get (the initiative) done,” he said. “We’re gonna be a productive partner to help make it happen.”