West Side Outreach provides free mental health awareness training to community members

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A group of educators and residents of the Austin neighborhood learned how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness in their community Wednesday with help from the West Side Outreach Project.

The project, led by the not-for-profit Kennedy Forum, has been focused on helping West Side residents understand mental illness after looking at hospital admissions and 911 calls related to mental health.

"We kinda overlaid those two data points to get a sense of where there would be communities most in need, and the West Side grew out of that," said Kelly O'Brien, of the Kennedy Forum.

The program works to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in the black community and to help police better respond to situations where mental illness might be a factor.

"Communities that have poverty, joblessness, that have homelessness, that have violence, all experience trauma," said Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Julie Morita.

"It's almost as if we live in a war zone, and you have to know mental health is going to rise in situations like that," said Reverend Steven Epting, of Hope Community Church.

The effort came after the December 2015 police shooting of Quintonio Legrier. Legrier reportedly struggled with mental illness and was shot by a police officer who was not trained to handle the situation properly.

The Chicago Police Department changed its crisis intervention team training in January.

"Unlike our other training, Crisis Intervention Training is a 40 hour block taught by non-CPD instructors, and subject matter experts as well as family and people with lived experiences," said Lieutenant Antoinette Ursitti of the CPD crisis intervention team.

West Side Outreach Project organizers said that more than 500 community members from the Austin, Garfield Park and North Lawndale neighborhoods have received free mental health awareness training.

Organizers said that their six-month pilot project will eventually be available citywide.

"The data that we've collected as part of the evaluation really supports this effort has been successful," said Dr. Amy Watson of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Legrier's mother, Janet Cooksey, said she hopes the program will succeed because she still struggles with the pain of her son's death.

"I live my son's death every day," Cooksey said. "For people to be reminded of his death makes me and him happy, because things shouldn't be forgotten. This mental health program will help."
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