Daily Herald Op-Ed

Cook County is tackling the mental health crisis

By Cook County Commissioner Kevin Morrison

A core pillar of my first campaign for Commissioner was seeing the critical need for expanded mental health services. As I spoke to thousands of people across my district, I heard over and over again people’s difficulties accessing mental health resources. Mental health struggles are on the rise in the U.S. with the CDC reporting that suicide rates had returned to peak levels in 2021. It took the COVID-19 pandemic for the nation to realize how big the problem truly is.

One response needing improvement is employee treatment. For example, many employees still fear retribution for taking advantage of their allotted vacation days, let alone sick days. We as a nation must do a better job of prioritizing employee wellness.

We at the Cook County Board have taken initiative to prioritize the mental health and wellness of those who work for Cook County government. One of the most basic steps we can take toward this type of change is to recognize the relationship between the workplace and our mental health and act accordingly. We know that our personal struggles don’t go away the minute we clock in to work. We also know that work can add another layer on top of already existing stressors and can be the primary contributor.

This is why I introduced an amendment to the Cook County Human Relations Ordinance specifically outlining the ability for Cook County employees to use sick time for mental health purposes. With this change, employees will be able to use the sick time they are entitled to on their own mental well-being, without being questioned by their supervisor. Mental health is inextricable from physical health. Stress, anxiety, depression and the whole spectrum of mental illness have a proven impact on the body’s ability to do just about anything, including our jobs. It is paramount that employees be able to prioritize their mental health and be able to take mental health days to avoid burnout.

Cook County employees work to serve the people. As public servants, they put everything they have into making their communities a better place and ensuring that the hard and often overlooked work of government gets done to the best of their ability. That dedication comes often at a personal cost that wellness time can help alleviate. With a policy like this in place, we can ensure that our public servants receive the support they need from their employers and thus provide better care and attention to the constituents that utilize our government services.

It is not only Cook County employees who can benefit from a policy like this. While we are blessed to live in state with such robust protections for employees; many are not so lucky. Just across the border in Missouri, there is no guarantee for sick time for physical illness and definitely no guarantee for mental health days. As states like Iowa and Ohio continue to peel back labor protections, employee mental health is not even a consideration. In Illinois, we must be the leaders who prioritize employee mental health through action. It is my hope that this proposal can become a model for other government bodies and the private sector. A no-questions-asked policy like this is just one more important step in destigmatizing mental health in the United States. If we prioritize employee productivity, we must also prioritize employee wellness and mental health.

I am proud of Cook County for being a leader on this issue and if we as a nation are committed enough to finally destigmatize mental health, hopefully our leaders and employers will soon follow.