Chicago receives federal grant for HIV testing, mental health services

By Chris Loeber

Chicago has received a federal grant that will be used to enhance the city’s mental health services and establish a more comprehensive HIV care network.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded the grant as a part of a five-year funding cycle for HIV prevention. A total of $339 million will be allocated to local and state health departments across the country each year, according to a written statement issued by the CDC.

A formal request for proposals, through which applications can be submitted directly to the CDPH for a portion of the funding, was launched Jan. 30.

HIV diagnosis rates have steadily declined since 2000, according to a 2011 report issued by the CDPH. However, community health centers may need to provide a more comprehensive education initiative, said Cynthia Turner, director of prevention at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

“I think there is a real lack of knowledge, and we’re seeing it on different fronts,” Turner said. “One is just general prevention education around HIV. The second thing is how to get linked up to care and resources.”

Turner said the best way to address a lack of mental health care for patients who need it is to create a direct line of communication between community health centers and the city’s mental health services.

The funding is part of an effort to provide high-quality care to “existing and future patients across the city,” said the CDPH in a written statement.

The AIDS Foundation of Chicago works with public health agencies across the city to provide HIV testing and may use additional funding to expand those services, according to Turner.

HIV and AIDS patients are at risk for mental illnesses, particularly clinical depression, said Ann Fisher, executive director at AIDS Legal Council of Chicago.

“Part of the funding is to make sure that we are reaching everybody at every nontraditional site that we can,” Turner said. “We’re talking about a much larger picture than just providing testing, and I think that HIV testing is just a way in the door and a way to work with this population that really needs these services.”

By overlapping the services that substance abuse centers and mental health centers provide, Chicago can bring mental care and HIV testing to some of the most vulnerable populations across the city—people who have very little access to financial resources and may already be infected with HIV, Fisher said.

The implementation of mental health services at community centers is a much-needed boost for the HIV service sector following the closure of nearly half of the city’s mental health centers, according to Edward Kuras, prevention manager at Test Positive Aware Network. The closures were a result of the consolidation of mental health clinics, as outlined in Chicago’s 2012 budget.

“It’s surprising, delightfully so I would say, that they have released even more money which means they’re focusing their attention on the epidemic which is a huge concern for the HIV field,” Kuras said. “The non-profit agencies and the city budgets can use that to help fund projects that are proven to help reduce the spread of HIV.”