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Renowned psychiatrist’s South Side mental health center to close

Dr. Carl C. Bell

Dr. Carl C. Bell

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Updated: August 29, 2012 6:04AM

Community Mental Health Council, Inc., the iconic South Side institution run by nationally recognized psychiatrist and violence behavior expert Dr. Carl C. Bell, will shut its doors Tuesday because the state did not renew its contract.

The Illinois Dept. of Human Services says its because the agency is fiscally mismanaged.

“Over the past several years, DHS... has advanced millions of dollars to CMHC in an effort to ensure continuity of care for consumers and to give the company an opportunity to improve its fiscal situation,” DHS spokeswoman Januari Smith Trader said. “CMHC...continues to experience serious fiscal mismanagement and eventual insolvency.”

Community leaders lament the loss of the pioneering, culturally sensitive, mental health resources CMHC and Bell have provided in the inner city since 1975.

“It’s tragic,” U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in the minds of those who understand mental health that Dr. Carl Bell stands almost alone in terms of not just his understanding, but vast areas of outreach. He has been the promoter of approaches and programs being used today by many others in the field.” A part-time professor of clinical psychology and public health at the University of Illinois Chicago, Bell was appointed by several White House administrations to such panels as the National Institute of Mental Health and National Academy of Sciences.

While admitting his agency’s fiscal troubles, he blames them on the state’s own woes.

“Our difficulties began two years ago, when the state began slow paying. It caused all kinds of ramifications,” Bell said. “We lost seven psychiatrists over that period, and therapists and case managers. I had to step down from my national policy influencing advocacy role, and get back to the front lines, which is why I have 1,000 patients.

“We’ve been gradually dwindling as the funding stream dried up, because we couldn’t pay people. I think my staff got paid in December, maybe March, but some kept working.”

Bell, whose agency is headquartered at 8704 S. Constance, said he seeks only bridge funding to transition his 1,000 patients to the few alternative agencies remaining in a climate of continuing social service cuts at both the state and city level.

The state should work with Bell to alleviate that impact, one state legislator said.

“The situation was inevitable because of all these cuts that put a strain on everyone, but especially those working on a thread in the first place,” said State Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago). “One of the problems with Carl is that he didn’t turn people away. He stretched that rubber band they gave him until it got to the snapping point.”

Bell and his groundbreaking work on the effects of race, culture and ethnicity on behavioral healthcare issues, such as Black-on-Black violence, have been featured everywhere from “60 Minutes” and “Nightline” to the New York Times and People magazine.

At its peak, CMHC boasted a $20 million budget, 400-plus staff, 26,000 patients and 100 residential beds. Today, patients still show up, but find a mostly empty building.

“I understand everything ends. I’m OK with that,” Bell said. “But I’ve got patients scheduled through Sept. 17. People who have relied on us deserve better. I need help to tell them we’re closing, get them some medicine, and appropriately refer them.”

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