Her boasting about ThriveNYC failed to acknowledge its failure to combat serious mental illness
Mayor de Blasio got big applause during his State of the City speech by bellowing, “There is plenty of money in the city, it is just in the wrong hands.” I agree. The money that’s in the wrong hands is the $850 million dollars in ThriveNYC mental health funds that he placed in the hands of his wife, Chirlane McCray.
As McCray explained during her own speech, the unelected first lady doles out the funds to community programs that wrap their worthy social services in a mental health narrative. There is no requirement they serve the seriously mentally ill.
As she told CNN, “There’s something for everyone.” After the city played a video featuring a couple claiming their kid’s karate lessons helped improve his mental health, she described the types of programs that get ThriveNYC funds from her. They included programs that serve people who have no mental illness but do serve those who are under pressure, work outside the home, belong to a single family household, are divorced, have an ill parent, are in a high-stress environment, have experienced any traumatic event or need help with their emotional wellness or emotional resilience.
The one type of group she didn’t mention: those that serve the seriously mentally ill. And instead of admitting that there are more homeless mentally ill on the streets and more seriously mentally ill in Rikers Island today than before she began ThriveNYC, she reported on her own barometers of success: the number of calls to a helpline and the number of people without mental illness trained to identify those with it.
She claimed ThriveNYC is a success because the NYC Well phone number the city set up received more than 500,000 calls. But as New Yorkers who ride the subways or walk the streets know, McCray is spending millions of dollars getting those calls by running advertising urging people who are not mentally ill to call. Posters encourage those who feel “anxious,” are not “confident”, are “under pressure” or feel “a little crazy to live here” to call.
That’s every New Yorker. There has been no concerted effort to get people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, two of the most serious mental illnesses to call — because if they do call, there are essentially no services to refer them to.
McCray also claimed success because 90,000 people have been trained in Mental Health First Aid. It’s a day-long workshop that teaches John Q. Public how to identify and refer the mentally ill to treatment. In spite of being massively researched, there is no evidence it helps the mentally ill. Identifying the mentally ill has never been a problem for New Yorkers. If you hear someone screaming, “I am the Messiah” while scavenging a dumpster for food, chances are that person is mentally ill and needs help. Again: There’s no place to refer them to.
During McCray’s speech, she repeated the myth that it is stigma, rather than the lack of city services, that prevents the seriously ill from getting care. She and her husband promised open-admission to hospitals and health care for everyone while failing to recognize for the seriously mentally ill, it’s harder to get into Bellevue than Harvard. She bragged that ThriveNYC is in “churches, synagogues, temples and mosques” and is going into the workplace, but failed to say anything about putting outreach workers at the exits to jails, shelters and psychiatric hospitals where the seriously mentally ill are.
After describing her success at ignoring the seriously ill, the mayor took the stage. “I love her for a thousand reasons, but I have to say what she has done with ThriveNYC is breathtaking.” He’s right again. Never before has so much money intended for one purpose been diverted to another.
Why does the City Council let this happen?
This piece originally appeared at the New York Daily News
DJ Jaffe is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institue, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., and author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill.
Photo by Jeff Schear / Getty