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First Lady Chirlane Mccray Delivers Remarks at the 'From Punishment to Public Health' (P2Ph) 2015 Conference in Brooklyn

January 28, 2015

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Eric. The people of Brooklyn are lucky to have you for a Borough President—and our family is lucky to have you as a friend.

And thank you NYC Council Member Andrew Cohen, Chair of the Mental Health Committee.

I know that Bill was proud to be an early member of Team Andrew, and I can’t think of a better person to lead this important committee. I look forward to working with Andrew on our shared priorities in the years to come.

Speaking of shared priorities, I’m grateful to two people who have been so generous with their time and expertise, both of whom are with us today: Dr. Mary Bassett, Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; and Dr. Gary Belkin, her Executive Deputy Commissioner for Mental Hygiene.

And, I thank everyone who helped put this conference together, especially Jeff Coots and Alice Cini.

As soon as I learned about this gathering, I knew it was the right opportunity for me to announce a new initiative that is close to my heart.

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact moment when mental illness first touched my life, but it’s likely that I was quite young.

Both my mother, a daughter of immigrants, and my father, a World War II veteran, struggled with depression—although neither one of them would have called it that. They were hardworking, committed parents. And to their enormous credit, even when they experienced periods of intense sadness, they tried their best to give their children all we needed.

When I left Massachusetts in 1977 for New York City, I had no idea how I would adjust to big-city life. But I started working in the publishing industry, with magazines, and I loved it.

Every day I was surrounded by words, and I got to help create the glossy publications I had hungrily devoured in doctor’s offices back home. And my co-workers? Well, they were everything I imagined New Yorkers to be: smart, confident, and in complete control of their sophisticated lives.

Or at least that’s how it seemed. One day, after I had just started a new job, I asked about the person who used to hold the position. And that led to one of those, “What did I say wrong?” moments.

People were visibly flustered. They were unable to find the precise words to describe what had happened. In whispers, they talked about an “abrupt personality change” and a “breakdown.”

And that’s all anyone would say before quickly changing the subject.

Which of course made me even more curious. But, I did not want to be impolite or make anyone feel uncomfortable.

So I let the conversation drop—because the message I was getting was clear. The way a sophisticated New Yorker handles this kind of thing is to not talk about it. Pretend it isn’t there. Get on with your life.

Well, I have big news for all of you today. We’re about to send New Yorkers a different kind of message.

Today, I am proud to announce that the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City is making a long-term commitment to the ongoing effort to build a better mental health system.

The Mayor’s Fund—which I lead as Board Chair—will work with DOHMH and the Fund for Public Health to create a roadmap for a more inclusive mental health system.

We are approaching this work through a “public health” lens.

That means we will not focus only on specific high-need illnesses and their impact on individuals.

We’re going to take a bird’s-eye view and look at the range of conditions that affect entire communities.

The roadmap will be structured around two key objectives:

First, we will describe the burden of mental illness on New Yorkers.

That means we will present information on the prevalence of common conditions like depression, anxiety and addiction.

And just how common are these diseases? The numbers are eye-opening. In any given year, it is estimated that 7 percent of adults in the United States are affected by depression; 18 percent are affected by anxiety; and 8.2 percent of Americans 12 or older are affected by a substance abuse disorder.

In our roadmap, we will also describe the economic, social and personal costs of these conditions.

And we will map the disparity in services that exists between groups and neighborhoods.

Because we know that many communities do not have access to good resources, and as a result their burden is greater.

Our second objective is to outline a plan. We will lay out a series of actions that address the needs and disparities we identify.

This is not going to be one of those reports that takes forever to complete, only to languish on a dusty shelf.

We will release the roadmap this summer. And soon after, the Mayor’s Fund will commit resources to pursue its findings.

At the same time, DOHMH will work with its fellow agencies and City Hall to make sure that what we learn is incorporated into City policies and programs. 

We are creating this roadmap because even as science has made advances in treatment options and therapy has grown more acceptable, too many of our policies and programs still address mental illness in a less-than-helpful way.

And that’s because too many of us aren’t yet ready to face up to the presence of mental illness in our lives. We ignore it. We sweep it under the rug. We cross the street. 

But no matter how hard we try to avoid it, the truly shocking reality is that our city and nation are experiencing a mental health crisis.

As the statistics make clear, the pain of depression and anxiety is everywhere. We can see it in our family members, our friends, and our co-workers.

I have to tell you that my way of thinking about all this changed dramatically when our daughter, Chiara, revealed to us that she was struggling with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

I felt everything you’d expect a mother to feel. Love for her, first and foremost. But also guilt, fear, and a great deal of uncertainty.

It was quite a task for us to find affordable mental health professionals and a program to meet Chiara’s needs. The needs of our daughter, who is no longer a child and not quite an adult. A young woman who has become an edgy biracial activist.

I’m proud to say that Chiara is kicking butt at recovery—and she’s working really hard to help other young people dealing with similar challenges.

So after everything I’ve experienced and after seeing one of the people I love most in the world suffer so much, I find myself talking every day about the mental health crisis facing our city. Talking to Bill. To my colleagues. To anyone who will listen.

Our family is lucky—we lead a comfortable life. And yet it was really hard for us to get our daughter appropriate help. So can you imagine what it must be like for the 46 percent of New Yorkers living at or near the poverty line? What is it like for a woman who speaks only Spanish? An African American father living in Brownsville? A grandmother raising her grandchild? Or someone who was formerly incarcerated?

All of these questions lead to a larger one: What can we do as a city to make sure that everyone has access to the mental health services they need?

I’ve devoted a lot of time over the last year to exploring that question.

I was inspired by a visit I made to the Manhattan Family Justice Center.

As some of you may know, the centers are a one-stop resource for the victims of domestic violence. They’re places where one can access a wide array of services—including counseling. And all of the City’s four centers are supported by the Mayor’s Fund.

When I was at the Manhattan Center, I spent some time talking to the counselors. Three things quickly became clear. First, they are doing amazing work. Second, they need more help. And third, we need more culturally-appropriate counselors. 

Despite everyone’s best efforts, the demand for mental health services is simply exceeding our capacity.

Following that visit, I reached out to Commissioner Bassett. I wanted to find out what her team was doing around mental health, if there were alternative models we could be employing, and how I could help.

She was happy to hear from me, and eager to let me know that DOHMH and a diverse team of stakeholders were indeed thinking about how to create a network of services—a network that would be wide enough to encompass all five boroughs… and strong enough to support everyone who needs help, even those dealing with the weightiest challenges.

So last week, I had the chance to see a program that would fit right into this network.

At the invitation of Dr. Belkin, I visited the Family Resource Center of the Southern Bronx.

Although their names are similar, Family Resource Centers are much different than Family Justice Centers. 

Family Resource Centers provide support to the parents and caregivers of young people who have—or are at risk of developing—emotional and behavioral challenges.

If that description sounds a little generic, the help they provide is not.

What blew me away is that the Resource Centers are staffed by people who can truly relate to what their clients are going through—and that’s because they’ve been there.
Every Family Advocate has personal, first-hand experience raising a child with special needs, and connecting them to effective programs and services.

They have already navigated through the frustration. They have already shed the tears. 

The pain of seeing their child suffer—and the joy of making things right—is just a memory away. They “get it” in a way that can’t be taught. And this allows them to connect to their clients in the deepest way.

I’m thinking now about a conversation I had with Darleen, her son Darryl, and their Family Advocate, Michelle.

Darryl was one of those kids you can’t help but like. He had big, round, soft brown eyes and was rocking these amazing tie-dyed pants.

What brought Darleen and Darryl to the center was his struggle to manage his anger.

At the center, Darryl was able to talk through his frustrations in a safe, non-judgmental environment. He also learned coping techniques—things he can do to calm himself. Two of his favorites are cooking and drawing.

While we were talking, he passed around his phone so we could see a photo of his recent artwork, and it was really good. I know Darryl has a bright future ahead of him.

And so does his mom. Darleen and Michelle, her Family Advocate, talked like old friends—people who have been through a lot together.

There are a total of nine Family Resource Centers throughout the five boroughs, serving almost 3,000 people annually. And while that’s great, everyone agrees—it’s not nearly enough! 

That’s why I am so excited to announce the roadmap that will guide us toward a more inclusive mental health system. 

This administration is not going to walk on by and pretend the mental health crisis doesn’t exist. We’re going to make a plan.

And then, we’re going to back that plan up with people and programs.

I hope you will consider partnering with us. If you like where we’re headed, will you please raise your hands?

That’s wonderful!  Because we cannot do this work alone.

With your partnership, we can create that network I was talking about—one that is as big and inclusive as the city we love.

With your expertise, we can make sure the network reflects our very best thinking.

And with your energy, we can create a healthier—and happier—New York.

Thank you!

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