Poll: IL Voters Want More Spending on Mental Health, Drug Treatment

Historically, stigma weighed heavily on individuals struggling with mental illness or drug/alcohol addiction or both. In the '70s and '80, families easily shunned and abandoned relatives who were under psychiatric care, embarrassed by their existence. Politicians acted scarcely better.

But over the last 30-years, persistent advocacy and political trench warfare by committed mental health care and addiction treatment activists have demonstrated effective therapies exist and have helped reverse the tide of negative public opinion.

In fact, in recent years after mass-shootings, a broad bipartisan consensus of lawmakers has loudly embraced increased investment in mental health care as a long-term strategy to deflect potential shooters from horrific crimes - (though after individual, inner city shootings a bi-partisan embrace of tougher gun crime prison sentences has been the typical public policy response) - and that has undoubtedly helped change public opinion.

In Illinois, spending more on mental health care is a big winner among voters, according to a new poll.

A July 26 automated poll commissioned by The Illinois Observer of 826 likely voters finds that 70.1% back "investing more money in mental health care" while just 11.5% oppose "investing more money." That's a net +59 points. Wow. 18.4% are undecided.

In the legislative district of State Rep. Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago), who is being targeted by Democrats in November, voters are nearly as equally supportive of increased expenditure for mental health. An August 1-2 automated survey commissioned by The Illinois Observer of 548 likely 2016 voters in McAuliffe's district finds that 66.9% support more mental health funding and 13.6% oppose or a 53-point net positive on the issue. 19.5% are undecided.

Those are some eye-ball popping numbers.

Voter support for investing more money in drug treatment is less dramatic than compared to mental health, but still startling from the perspective where voters stood barely two years ago.

The new poll says that 55.4% of likely voters support investing more money to "provide treatment to individuals struggling with drug addiction, such as addiction to heroin" and 27.2% oppose. 17.4% are undecided.

However, in 2014, on the edge of an unfolding heroin epidemic in Illinois, voters were in an ungenerous mood.

According to a May 12, 2014 automated poll commissioned by the Illinois Association for Behavioral Health (IABH) (formerly Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association) few Illinois voters wanted to spend money on drug treatment even with a heroin crisis exploding.

The poll of 534 likely voters, conducted by Strive Strategies of LaGrange, found that only 24.4% supported "increasing state government funding for drug treatment to fight the Illinois heroin crisis" and 40.4% opposed the idea. 35.2% were undecided.

It's public opinion whiplash.

"Two years ago voters were unprepared to spend money to fight the emerging heroin crisis," said IABH COO Eric Foster. "But in the ensuing two years, the heroin conversation and the perception around the issue is being transformed as the crisis has expanded to every community and deepened as deaths have mounted and as bipartisan coalitions of lawmakers here in Illinois and across the country have fought to respond.

"Even 2016 presidential primary candidates addressed the issue."

In McAuliffe's district support of more money for drug treatment stands at nearly half of voters, 46.7%, backing increased funding and 30.4% opposed. 22.9% are undecided.

Voter support for increased funding for mental health care and addiction treatment comes as the Rauner Administration has placed behavioral healthcare at the "center" of its human services "transformation" plan and as a key component of its criminal justice reform ambitions.

While behavioral health serves as a strategic policy centerpiece for the governor, funding for both programs has retreated.

In Fiscal Year 2016, state addiction treatment contracts issued to community providers, with money coming from the state's general revenue fund for drug treatment, were cut 25% from FY 2015 levels. Mental health care contracts saw a 21.8% cut. In 2017, addiction treatment contracts had 21.4% reduction and mental health got a 26.7% cut.

Insiders note that "some" of that money was "shifted" to Illinois' Medicaid system to provide behavioral health services, but they argue that that provides no benefit to large non-Medicaid eligible populations served by non-profit community providers. And advocates point out that it is notoriously difficult to track behavioral health money from one budget year to the next once that money is shifted into the larger Medicaid pot.

Budget cuts to mental health and addiction treatment are, however, not a recent phenomenon. The state legislature cut addiction treatment funding by 40% between FY 2009 and FY 2015. Mental health suffered a similar budgetary fate, getting cut by approximately 30%, during the same period.

The social stigma falling on those struggling with either mental illness or addiction has been rapidly lifting with public opinion swinging sharply in favor of public support for care and treatment. For those folks working to recover, that is swell news.

For elected officials, they must be alert on the campaign trail to the political stigma of cutting those programs that voters now strongly embrace. Otherwise, they may find themselves shunned, abandoned in November and beyond.