One year ago, the “Chinatown murders” led coverage in New York newspapers. Four homeless men were beaten to death one night in early October 2019, allegedly by a man with mental illness and a long experience cycling through the homelessness and criminal-justice systems.
It was tragic and outrageous. Yet a year later, nothing has changed.
Joshua Diaz, another mentally ill man with a lengthy rap sheet, was arrested last month and is suspected of pushing a New Jersey woman off a subway platform.
New Yorkers are so inured to evidence of mental-health dysfunction that they’re probably unaware of just how many advantages the city has on that front. As my late colleague DJ Jaffe used to say, “On paper, New York has the best mental- health-care system in the nation.”
It has wealth. The city raised (pre-COVID) more than $13 billion in income taxes annually, about half of which came from the 70,000 or so filers earning $500,000 or more.
These funds and others from many additional revenue sources support a wide range of “community services” that advocates always argue are key to stabilizing the mentally ill.
To divert mentally ill people from jail, New York has one of the most robust networks of alternatives to incarceration programs of any city in the nation.
Mayor de Blasio’s 15,000-unit supportive housing initiative is the largest such effort in US history, breaking the previous record set by Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s 9,000-unit “New York/New York III” supportive housing program.
It has expertise. While more than 1,000 counties in America don’t have one psychiatrist, New York, and Manhattan in particular, always ranks at or near the top in psychiatrists per capita rankings.
It has public engagement. Though mental-health issues barely rank in federal elections, in a city where “quality of life” concerns regularly poll at the top of public surveys, mental-health reform has more of a “had me at hello” character for New York politicians.
The main problem is that all that wealth, expertise and engagement counts for little when so much of our government’s focus is devoted to the “worried well,” and not schizophrenic homeless men disposed to punching random strangers.
Genuinely troubled mentally ill individuals represent a minority of New Yorkers who report experiencing some sort of “mental disorder.” But they drive most of the public concern.
In that respect, de Blasio’s ThriveNYC program hasn’t just been a failure, it’s been counterproductive. Most of the criticism of Thrive focused on waste and vagueness. No doubt, Thrive achieved remarkably little for a program costing more than $850 million, in large measure because of no clear conception of what it was trying to achieve.
But one clear goal of Thrive’s architects was to convince as many New Yorkers as possible that having a mental disorder is no big deal because it happens to practically everyone. To the extent they succeeded, they set back the cause of mental-health reform.
Believing that everyone needs help leads to the diffusion of scarce resources and reduces acceptance of the reality that rare problems merit unusual interventions. Involuntary treatment not only is sometimes necessary, it’s the most compassionate action.
COVID hasn’t made anything easier. As The Wall Street Journal reported last month, many of New York’s already-scarce psychiatric care beds were converted to prepare for a hospitalization surge. The current uptick in infections and hospitalizations is bad news for anyone eager to restore those beds for psychiatric care as soon as possible.
On mental health, New York’s just as up against it as it ever was. The task ahead, for the next mayor, is to reverse the mistakes of the Thrive era, work to build back in-patient bed capacity, and expand supervisory options for the mentally ill. We’re not getting a vaccine anytime soon for the madness in the streets.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal.
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