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City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray outlines mental health battle plan

August 19, 2015 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
First Lady Chirlane McCray says mental health issues are “so near and dear to my heart.” Photo courtesy of the Mayor’s Office
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New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray on Tuesday offered a progress report on her ambitious effort to get the city to tackle mental illness in a different way, telling reporters that government can no longer ignore “the elephant in the room.”

McCray, who has made mental health the hallmark of her public role as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, told a group of journalists at a reporter’s roundtable at Gracie Mansion that she is in the process of assembling a roadmap that will lead to a guide to how mental illness will be treated in the city.

The statistics are sobering, according to McCray, who said studies have shown that one out of every four or five adult New Yorkers has some type of mental health condition.

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Eight percent of high school students have attempted suicide. Another shocking fact discussed Tuesday is that depression, not grades, is the factor determining how long it will take a City University of New York (CUNY) student to graduate.

Mentally ill homeless people are often on a merry-go-round of going from a shelter to a jail to a hospital and back out to a shelter again.

“It’s time for us to do something,” McCray said. Right now, the city is spending so much money “to put a band-aid” over the problem when a more comprehensive approach would work much better, she said.

McCray has been visiting schools, community centers and other programs and has been seeking input from medical professionals, civic leaders and clergy members to gather feedback “from the ground.” She plans to use the information they provide to help form her plan of action.

In March, McCray visited the Veteran Administration’s New York Harbor Healthcare System in Bay Ridge to look at a program that treats military veterans with mental health issues.

McCray said her roadmap will contain four components:

  1. It will quantify the problem of mental health to give a clearer picture of just how widespread it is.

  2. McCray will lay out what she called “a bold vision” of how mental illness will be treated.

  3. Programs the city already has in place will be documented.

  4. A multi-year agenda for dealing with mental health will be introduced.

Important steps are being taken already, according to McCray.

For example, McCray noted that the city’s budget for Fiscal Year 2016 contains $78 million for the treatment of mental health problems.

In July, McCray and her husband announced that the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and the Corporation for National and Community Service would start a $30 million public-private partnership to advance the goal of changing the delivery of mental health services.

The funds will be used to get a new program called Connections to Care off the ground. Under the program, the Center for Economic Opportunity and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will help integrate mental health services into existing programs that are already serving low-income communities.

The city is seeking community-based organizations to take part in the Connections to Care program, according to McCray, who said a Request for Proposals (RFP) will be issued in the fall.

On Aug. 6, de Blasio announced the launch of NYC Safe, a program to support what he termed the “narrow population of New Yorkers” with untreated serious mental illness who pose a concern for violent behavior.

NYC Safe, which went into effect immediately, established a centralized oversight body that coordinates public safety and public health. Under the program, the city can respond more rapidly to prevent violence and act more assertively when it does happen, according to the mayor.

McCray, who said that the majority of mentally ill people are not violent, added that part of the goal of her roadmap will be to train people on how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness and then give them a roadmap on where to get help for themselves or a friend or loved one.

Under her vision, people would have a “mental health tool kit” to draw upon when they need help coping, she said.

Another goal is to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness. “People don’t want to go to a place where they are going to be labeled,” she said.

Getting help to children is a key, according to McCray, who said the presence of a clinic in a school “changes everything.”

Senior centers and job placement centers are other places where staff could possibly be trained to recognize mental health issues, she said.

“The best thing we can do is act early,” McCray said.

McCray has seen mental health issues close up. She candidly told reporters that both of her parents suffered from depression and that a friend she had gone to high school with committed suicide at age 26. The pain of that loss is something that she has carried with her “all these years,” she said.

Her daughter, Chiara de Blasio, was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, McCray said. She described her daughter’s problems as “a tipping point” that made her want to look deeply into the issue of mental health.

When she started to become involved, she was surprised. “I had no idea that it was so huge” and that “it wasn’t just my family,” she said.

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