Mental health is one of the most important, but overlooked parts of our overall health as African-Americans. New York’s First Lady, Chirlane McCray hopes to drive awareness to what can be a sensitive issue in many families. She talked to Sybil Wilkes about her very personal family struggles with mental health.
“This topic is so important to me because it’s personal, says McCray. “From the very beginning of my life, I’ve had experiences with people who were affected with mental health issues. My parents, both of them, suffered from depression. I’ve had other family members with various mental health challenges. Even our daughter, two years ago was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders.”
McCray, who is married to New York City Bill de Blasio with whom she has two college-age children, Dante and Chiara. Chiara, now 20, has publicly spoken about her struggles, including in an essay where she shared her experience.
“I had an amazing, unconditionally loving, and unbroken family,” she wrote in the essay. “I went to good schools. I lived in a beautiful neighborhood. So why, then, did I always feel empty? I was surrounded by love, but I always felt less-than, out-of-place, restless, irritable, and discontent. Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking that I was simply ungrateful. Yes, I was. But a lack of gratitude wasn’t my only problem. I was the problem. I was not born a happy person.”
Though the issue of her daughter’s health surfaced during the last mayoral campaign in 2013, McCray says her experience is not unusual.
“When I speak to different audiences, I always say to them ‘Raise your hand if you’ve never had the experience of dealing with someone [with mental issues] raise your hand.’ No one ever raises their hand.”
DiBlasio, as mayor, is committed to providing more funding to the existing services for the mentally ill, McCray says that there is more that needs to be done.
“It’s not a consistent [mental health] system. It’s not consistent. We have programs and services and some of them are excellent. But it’s not really a consistent from place to place. There’s no real standards of care. There’s not cultural competency. Although we have expanded some services for those who are really vulnerable in our homeless shelters, our foster kids, our domestic violence victims, and making sure they get the services they need but our focus on the big picture so that we can connect to the dots and make sure that everyone is really getting helped.
A sobering statistic – a recent investment of $78 million annually is still not enough to provide counselors and treatment to vulnerable New Yorkers.
“And that’s just the beginning,” McCray says. “We’ve invested over $380 million over the next three years. We’ll take services to New Yorkers where they are – that’s the schools, that’s the shelters, that’s the family justice centers. We also have a program that we launched called New York City Safe which supports a very narrow population of New Yorkers who have untreated, serious mental illness but who also pose a concern of violent behavior.”
McCray has made this her focus for all the reasons stated above and also because mental health incorporated many of her longtime passions, she says.
“It touched all the areas that I had a deep interest in like education, the justice system and the arts. We are in the process of bringing together all the agencies in the city that are invested in how people do. We have 18 agencies that are interested in this because it impacts their outcomes. The reality is that there is no health without mental health,” McCray says. “African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to seek mental health services due to the stigma. But part of the fear is that people don’t realize we have real options now. Maybe we didn’t 50 or 20 years ago but people don’t have to feel like they can’t get well.”