“The Elephant in the Room”: How Will We Solve New York’s Mental Health Crisis?

City First Lady Chirlane McCray, via Wikimedia Commons
City First Lady Chirlane McCray, via Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, First Lady Charlene McCray has made improving the city’s mental healthcare the focus of her career. Her concern stems from awareness of sobering statistics–one out of every four or five adult New Yorkers suffers from some type of mental health condition; eight percent of high school students have attempted suicide–as well as from a deeply personal place: McCray’s parents both suffered from depression as she was growing up. 

“I didn’t know that they were suffering from depression—I didn’t have that word in my vocabulary,” McCray said at a press conference at Gracie Mansion yesterday, where she gave a progress report on her staunch efforts to tackle the city’s mental health crisis. “But now that I look back on it… it’s quite obvious to me now that that’s what was going on.” A friend of McCray’s from high school committed suicide at age 26, a “devastating” loss she’s carried “all these years.” When her daughter, Chiara de Blasio, was diagnosed with anxiety and depression at 16–about which she’s spoken publicly and movingly–McCray’s commitment to fighting mental illness deepened. It was “a tipping point,” she said.

“It’s always been the elephant in the room, wherever I go,” McCray said of mental illness. “If it was identified as a public health problem, like the flu or cancer or breast cancer—any of those things—we would be saying ‘This is a crisis!’ And it is a crisis.” She cited research showing that depression, not grades, is the determining factor when it comes to how long it will take a City University of New York (CUNY) student to graduate.

McCray called for a drastic rethinking of mental health, suggesting that treatment for mental illness should begin with prevention. In the case of physical illness, we’re taught starting in childhood to seek medical care as soon as the earliest symptoms are detected, but this standard often isn’t applied to illness of a psychological or emotional nature. Because of stigma, lack of education, and other factors, people suffering from mental illness are often reluctant to seek help, and often wait to do so until the situation is dire–when they’ve, say, lost their job and relationship due to depression and alcoholism.

“Kids get weighed, they get their eyes checked, but there’s also the other component—their emotional health. When people don’t get the services they need when they need them, it just grows and grows,” McCray said. “It becomes a problem for the family, community—and sometimes it becomes news.”

The Mayor’s new executive budget includes  $78.3 million in funding for new services meant to aid “the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” with “the toughest time and the fewest options” when it comes to mental health. With this budget, McCray is in the process of creating a guide to how mental illness will be treated in the city. She said her roadmap will include four components:

  1. It will measure mental illness statistics throughout the city, to clarify its ubiquity and seriousness.
  2. McCray will present “a bold vision” for new, more effective treatment of mental illness in the city.
  3. It will increase and improve documentation for existing mental health programs in the city.
  4. It will introduce a multi-year agenda for dealing with mental health.

Efforts to improve mental healthcare have already begun. De Blasio’s NYC Safe program, launched on August 6th, aims to better track and treat the mentally ill and violent.

[via The Brooklyn Eagle]


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