You Can Die and Then be Buried or you can Raise Above the Grave and Fight

On April 15, 2015, AREA Chicago sat down with N’Dana Carter in Nichol’s Park to talk with her about her involvement in the Mental Health Movement (MHM). Following is an excerpt of the interview. 

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N’Dana Carter: There’s a lot of things—a myriad of things—happening in my life right now… At the same time, I’m trying to fight the city off for the public mental health clinics because we realized last Monday that the city intends to close those six clinics. It was confirmed actually. Dr. Morita who is the … commissioner for the Department of Health, she came in to tell us about Healthy Chicago 2.0. It has nothing to do with public mental health clinics! But she was so proud. And after she told us about it, Diane [Adams] went into her about the mental health clinics like what happened to the clinics and the people when the clinics closed. And just after she finished this guy named Fred says “are you planning to close the six clinics?” She stood up. She raised up and she says, “Um, I’m very new and I don’t really know. We have to study and decide what’s really happening with the clinics.” She’s been with the city for over 10 years. She knows, right? …

Then another person says, “Are you closing the clinics?” She says (now she’s really upset), “I believe I’ve answered that question.” What? Seriously? Because if you answered the question—I’m an adult, I get it. No one at the table heard a straight answer. So I said “Well, no, you didn’t answer the question. That’s why we need an answer.” So the chairperson—who is an ass-kisser—says to her, “Well, we really don’t need to know that answer right now.” And I said, “No, he doesn’t, but all the rest of us need to know right now.” And so she looked at me and she says, “Well, as I said, we’re still studying because I’m brand new.” “Oh, so that means you’re closing clinics.” “I never said that.” You didn’t say you weren’t.

Good thing is that C4 [Community Counseling Centers of Chicago], one of the city’s private partners, announced they’re closing. Now the good thing and the sad thing is, first, it gives us another leg to say hey you can’t close these public mental health clinics because they’re the safety net for one of your partners that’s going out of business. So where do you think the people are going to go? To the public mental health clinics.

…. You know somebody called me on Saturday and said, “You know, C4 is closing.” I said, “I’ll be damned.” And so WBEZ called me yesterday and asked me, “What about C4 closing?” I said, “Well you know, the first thing I did was I started calling people to find out: Do you know who went there? Is everybody ok? What’s going on?” Which is true, which is what I did. I said I was terrified because I know that the city is planning to close the six clinics although they are too cowardly to admit it. That’s their plan. I didn’t say cowardly but I really should’ve now when I think about it. Oof.

AREA: Well, you just did.

NC: That’s fine….

… The reason civics was taken out of schools is then people don’t know what their rights are and how things work. Because when you know stuff, you do stuff. And when you don’t know stuff, you’re just like “Oh well, I’ll never…” You know? So I get it, keeping civics education out. But it’s time to come back in. It’s time to come back in. And the Mental Health Movement (MHM) is one of those groups that’s saying, “Hey look, this is civic… these are civic rights. You are allowed… the constitution allows you to, you know, collect taxes, so you can provide services for the citizens that you collect taxes from.” That’s in essence. That’s not the exact wording, but that’s what all the constitution is about. Well not all of it, but when it comes to how bills are paid and how services are rendered that is what the constitution allows you to do. This isn’t a favor that you’re doing. This is something that you steal money from me; to tax. And housing taxes.

And the Obama library—damn Obama! Obama ain’t done jack for me! And anybody I know. Ok. Which, people of color and poor people—Obama has not been our friend, you know, and especially Black people. So yeah, if you want N’Dana Carter going on record. I have so many issues. I know my tax dollars are going to go into supporting that Obama library, because Chicago Park District land is going to be given to the Obama library and it’s a private institution. It’s not a public library. So there’s nothing in it for me, and a huge amount of my yearly real estate taxes are put into the Park District. And Washington Park is one of the older parks. It’s in a predominantly black community that the University of Chicago is stealing and this mayor is doing it. I know I’m off topic but…

 AREA: Its’ your neighborhood too

NC: Yeah, it’s my neighborhood. You now, I… the University of Chicago didn’t want me in their schools. They didn’t want me in their area. So now they’re putting me out of my community. And they’re closing my schools. And they’re doing it with my money. And that really bothers me. At the same time, you take my rights away. Because they’re not going to stop collecting taxes. OK? But they’re going to… they continue to stop providing services. And making my existence illegal. This is a problem. And we have a mayor who, you know [N’Dana points to her button] “Excuse me, I’ve got a city to destroy,” okay? And that’s who he is. And so, services are being lost every year. Now [Mayor Richard] Daley was a bad guy and his father was a bad guy before him. But, at some point, stuff has to stop. I’m just really frightened about what is happening to the people that go to public schools; that work in the public schools; that need public services, public mental health clinics. I’m very frightened because at any moment you can be attacked because you have mental illness and you might need medication or you might need a place to go to talk. And none of that’ll be available to you. The only thing that will be available to you is prison, you know. I’m sorry, now, you have questions…

AREA: Yeah. Um… I believe that I remember you saying that organizing with the MHM became your therapy in some sense. Did you say that?

NC: I don’t remember saying that, but it is true.  It’s true because it gives you… it keeps you alive. You know, you can die and then be buried or you can raise above the grave and fight. So I’m raised above the grave and so I’m able to fight.  And in many ways, when I had fallen my lowest, I was just waiting to die. I truly was waiting to die. The depression had taken over, my rights had been violated so very many times, and it was by the city… And then I started going to a public mental health clinic, Greater Grand Crossing, and my therapist said, “Hey, they’re trying to close these clinics and there’s a group named STOP [Southsiders Together Organizing for Power] fighting.” I went to a meeting and after that I’ve never stopped going to the meetings…

AREA: What year was that?

NC: I think 2009.

AREA: Can you give a little bit of background about the MHM?

NC: The MHM actually started about a year before I came aboard. The MHM was organized because Daley decided he was going to close public mental health clinics. Woodlawn—one of the clinics that was eventually closed—was probably the most organized clinic of all the 12 clinics. They had a very active board, advisory board. They had volunteers. And when they knew the clinics were going to close, they went to STOP… actually it was people from the city-wide mental health advisory board—it’s a group that meets downtown once a month—and a lot of those people came from the Woodlawn Clinic. So, they got together and they approached STOP. At the same time STOP was organizing, they sent out these fliers to everybody letting them know that they were fighting to keep the clinics open. So I guess that was about 2008, 2009. And it had really just begun after I had, you know, become a part of it. And they started with rallies—they started talking to people and they started with rallies—telling people about what was happening.

… Their most significant beginning was when there was a sit-in in mayor Daley’s offices, the same year that mayor Daley had been campaigning to have the International Olympics here in the city of Chicago… It was the first time the city met with the MHM. And then the MHM became more viable because, what happened is everybody had a voice.. Our position is anybody that wants to come should be there, you know, especially if it affects you. Anyone that lives in the city is affected. But if you use the clinics, it’s more important that your voice is heard. And there were people that have died now—like Helen Morley, who had been an advocate and a user and she had mental illness in her family, children, parents, etc, but she had been a fighter. She was a real scrappy (I hate that word)… She was a real fighter in housing because there is so much discrimination.

That’s the other reason that so many people don’t like to admit that they’re mentally ill. Because the first thing people say is, “Oh, you’re crazy.” … Once you say mental illness—you’re crazy; you don’t know anything. So, that’s what we’ve been dealing with from… the entirety. You’re crazy; so you can’t think. And we can think. I might have delusions from time to time. Helen might. Hey, Matt might. [laughs] We all might. But we can think. I’m crazy, ok? Get over it. But so are you. It’s ok. It’s a fact of life. We have things that happen. But to say that I’m less than you is what we’re constantly hearing. “You’re crazy, so you’re less than me.”

And so it wasn’t that we needed to prove it, but we needed to reinforce that these are our services. This is our right to have them. So, we’ve done things where we walked and walked the streets of Chicago; and got signatures from people who lived as far as India and China; telling them about the reason these public mental health clinics are important; telling them why they need to be supported. And we got signatures. People saying, “Yes we do want to keep these clinics open because they’re important and they service people.” It’s a safety net. Every city needs a safety net. Now this is a mayor that… he doesn’t like poor people. He doesn’t want public services but he wants to continue to collect taxes. So, now what we’re doing: we’ve written two research reports on the… use and the purpose of the Public Mental Health Clinics. We’ve validated the reason, the services that they perform…

We lost some of the battles because we did lose those clinics. But with the closing of C4… We ain’t missing nothing. They need our six clinics back open. And this again shows why the clinics are important to the MHM. It has everything to do with that. Because their people don’t like us because sometimes we’re loud. We follow and harass. But, if we go away, who is going to protect everybody else? What’s next? A lot of things have closed and we still have those six clinics. It doesn’t cost a lot to keep the clinics open. But the purpose was to keep the clinics open and to give a voice to the people like me that struggle with mental illness. Now, I’ll tell you I used to be so ashamed of my profound depression that I would be in front of a camera with a different name. When the people that knew me, knew I wasn’t Miss Washington or Miss Jackson, I was N’Dana Carter. So the MHM gives pride to people that struggle with mental illness. Because it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to be proud of that you have the ability to stand up for your rights. A lot of people don’t.

AREA: Thank you so much. A couple more questions. I guess what is your long-term vision. If you could get anything you wanted…in Chicago…

NC: One mental health clinic in each community in Chicago… To have that safety net for every community. How safe would Chicago be? How healthy—how productive would people be? Long-range goal is to have, to restore, the 20 clinics that we lost. There used to be 21 clinics. But we’ll take 20. But our real goal is to have a clinic in every community. And to erase the stigma of mental illness. You know, it’s like people come and they say “Well, it’s nothing wrong with me. I just need somebody to talk to.” Yeah, that’s called therapy. And don’t be ashamed that you need therapy. It’s a good thing. And to be able to have your tax dollars pay for it is an even better thing…

AREA: So I’m wondering about your strategy… I feel like the MHM continues to make mental health an issue at the forefront of politics in Chicago. And you do this by… often by confrontational action.

NC: It’s old school. It’s old school. There’s some things you see, some things you don’t. Always we are about educating. We do nothing without educating. Sometimes we’re speaking out. When you think about it, it’s like “Oh, I didn’t know.” We have four public mental health clinics that service, according to Sheriff Dart, that service a large number of repeat offenders that keep going back to jail. The city does not make any effort to put money into those communities. In those communities, folks didn’t know that. The mayor now knows it. So, he’s giving money to Thresholds to do his job. He’s got four clinics. Thresholds doesn’t have that. And even if Thresholds does it, they couldn’t do it as well. So let Thresholds do it, but fund your clinics because your clinics are the direct pipeline. Those are two blocks from where I live, a mile from where I live. You’ve got to go online and try and find Thresholds. With the city, all you call is 311. So it’s a service. We keep going back to service because my dollars are connected to service. So our goal is always—no matter what we’re doing—it’s to educate people. Always. We had our last forum and we say we don’t need to know the politicians. You meet one politician, you’ve met them all. They need to know who we are. So when we have a forum, it’s about you knowing me, not me knowing you. You’re one of a billion. But now you need to know who I am. Because I’m not one of the zillion and even if I am, it’s a zillion of me you need to know…

We even need to move foolish people that have tons of money that don’t realize that their rights too are being violated. Because they’re not giving you your tax dollars for… And maybe you don’t need it, but you should be mad because it’s always going to be collected from you. Now it’s the zillionaires that aren’t paying taxes. But those thousandaires who think they don’t need to go to the clinic because they’ve got good jobs. You’re a thousandaire, get over it. You’re not a millionaire. You’re not a billionaire or a trillionaire. So you need these services…

So, we have educational forums … The last one was in February. Before that, we had the Mental Health Caucus. The caucus was for everyone to come together. I like that word because it makes us sound really important. And it is what we were doing. A caucus is just a meeting. It’s not… it’s a meeting. So, you get all these crazy people to caucus, to talk about the future of the public mental health clinics and what they would like to see. So, Part Two is coming up.

AREA: I was going to ask about that because I attended a meeting. I don’t even remember…

NC: October 17th

AREA: You remember?

NC: I organized it. What do you want? I organize these things.

AREA: Oh geez, I wrote down some notes, but I don’t remember. Oh yeah I put a mark… you all were talking about a 10-year plan.

NC: That’s what the caucus was for, a 10 year plan… Chicago could be a better city if people were all healthy. If the goal for Chicago was to be a healthy city, that would mean that they would reopen an additional… reopen the six and then reopen some more. And have it in their vision for having a clinic in every community. Now in 20 years, they could do that. In 10 years, they could, no… In 3 years could open the six that they closed. 2.7 million dollars is all it would cost to open the other two.

AREA: And they’re still spending money, on private providers. Is that true?

NC: They are still giving money to private providers…

AREA: I’m just wondering, why, you think. From what I was hearing it’s not that much. They’re spending millions of dollars still on private providers so the cost is even, the difference between opening up the clinics and what they’re doing now is even smaller than 2.3 [million]

NC: Well it’s 2.7 million dollars needed to open two clinics additional. And that would put the city in a line of something like 55 million, about 6 million for eight clinics. But we’re saying every year add another 2.7 million. Now, what we’ve found is that it only costs 25 cents for every taxpayer additional to pay the 2.7 million dollars. So we’re not talking about a ton of money…