IPS Executive Director Meryl Camin Sosa, JD, speaks with IPS residents during the
IPS Women’s Brunch in November 2009.
The Illinois Psychiatric Society, an independent branch of the
American Psychiatric Association, extends its reach through its
members to the fragile, often silently suffering population that
they serve. Once housed under an umbrella association, IPS
has emerged independently and now embraces its own legislative squalls, no longer content just to weather them.
IPS Executive Director Meryl Camin Sosa is at the helm
and the heart of the shift. Her passion has reverberated among
members and state lawmakers alike, as she has championed
and helped achieve legislative change on behalf of the group
each of her three years with the society.
“This is a lesson in how associations grow up,” says former
IPS President Daniel Yohanna, vice chair of the Department
of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of
Chicago. “You’re under a larger umbrella and eventually you
are ready to set your own path. It can be frightening, but on
the other hand, there is more you can do.”
The evolution of IPS is far reaching. Because psychiatrists
are intricately linked to those they serve — those whose voices
and finances are often strained if not changed forever by men-
tal illness — serving them serves society at large.
Whether they’re in higher education or face-to-face therapy,
Illinois psychiatrists have an overabundance of clients that place
huge demands on their time. Soon those demands could get
even greater as Illinois, already 38th in per-capita spending for
mental health services, has been considering budget cuts that
could cost 175,000 people community mental health services.
Increased homelessness, institutionalization and incarceration
rates could result and IPS estimates that up to 65,000 people
with alcohol and substance addictions could lose treatment.
“There aren’t enough of us, basically,” says IPS President
Lisa Rone. “We don’t like having limitations on what we do to
serve our patients. But in the real world, we do.”
Exacerbating those systemic pressures is the fact that four
years ago, more and more active IPS members began focusing
on what’s called community, or public, psychiatry: serving the
severe and persistently mentally ill.
“You can’t work independently in an office and help people
like that,” Yohanna says. “You have to make policy changes…
advocate for patient care, lobby for legislative changes.”
Three years ago, IPS was sharing its executive director with
another association while trying to serve and communicate with
members doing largely solitary work mostly with pen and paper,
as a third of its 1,100 members lacked e-mail addresses.
All those realities forced change. First came the hiring of
Sosa. A lawyer with public policy experience and personal
exuberance, she quickly realized that she needed to register
as a lobbyist to legally have the meetings she needed to have
in order to effect the change IPS needed for its constituents.
Since that wasn’t going to happen under the wings of the
Illinois State Medical Society, a 35-year relationship saw an
“She didn’t come from a mental health background, but
it was clear she understood needs and was empathetic,”
says Yohanna, the first person to interview Sosa for the post.
“Almost immediately we started having a legislator at practi-
cally every meeting to talk with us.”
Sosa started laying parallel tracks by increasing her group’s
sense of professional community, and motivating it to pursue
“I think psychiatrists are viewed within the medical profession as stepchildren,“ Sosa says. “They are doctors who go
through every rotation in medical school, too. I think if many
people sat for one day in my members’ chairs, they’d run
screaming. Some patients don’t even want your treatment. If
you have heart trouble, you need a cardiologist, but if you have
a psychotic episode, you don’t know what you need.
“Mental health is so important to everyone, and it’s hard
for me to understand why anyone would think differently. But
we’ve had to really work hard.”
Several IPS members say that despite education efforts —
and a proliferation of antidepressant commercials on TV — the
stigma of having a mental illness still exists even within the insur-
ance system. In fact, psychiatric visits are not always covered at
the same levels as care for other illnesses. Where insurance is
lacking, therefore, medical attention is likely lacking, too.
“Psychiatric illnesses are brain illnesses. It’s no different than
a heart or kidney problem,” says Rone, in private practice 10
years after serving at Lakeside Veterans Administration Hospital,
Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “So our goal has to be providing
education and advocacy so people have better access to care.”