Thrive NYC: First Lady Chirlane McCray, Deputy Mayor Richard Buery Talk Mental Health In Black Communities

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First Lady Chirlane McCray and Deputy Mayor Richard Buery excitedly arrived at Gracie Mansion to discuss the 54-program gift of mental clarity that is Thrive NYC. Upon the duo’s entrance, the First Lady responded to “How are you doing today?” with, “I’m doing fine, but what a challenge. All this stuff going on nationally…” She was referring to the then-impending vote for the Affordable Care Act. But her rhetoric easily spoke for a portion of the communities in NYC’s metropolitan and urban areas that her mental health initiative will be serving.

CREDIT: VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis

On January 26, 8-year-old Gabriel Taye committed suicide just two days after a bullying incident left him lying unconscious on his school’s bathroom floor.

On July 6, Dejuan Guillory, a father of three, was killed in the woods of Mamou, Louisiana, by an officer who was frustrated with his and his girlfriend’s failure to present ID while “frogging.”

On July 7, 22-year-old Texan Bakari Henderson’s life was beaten out of him at a bar during a business trip to Greece.

On July 8, Washington National Guard reservist Michael Anthony Rude was murdered on the I-5 after reporting to police that he had a knife and was suicidal.

Every day, hate crimes, fallen victims of police brutality, suicidal friends, family members, and loved ones battling burdens that are too heavy to carry decorate major cities and urban areas. The stories of the fallen and victimized citizens are plastered across social networks and media outlets. The exposure raises awareness to those who choose to turn a blind eye, yet twists the knife further into the minority communities who collectively make up the majority of the population in cities like New York. But, much like the beginning of the interview, we indulge in a lot of small talk and engage in tactics like the First Lady’s “POW” to mask the trauma behind our grins — a technique she’s learned to produce a “genuine” smile on camera.

Before the late rapper Prodigy passed away in June, he joined the likes of Young M.A., Waka Flocka Flame, Joey Bada$$, and Freddie Gibbs on Viceland’s The Therapist. He opened up about the “traumatic” experience of dealing with sickle cell anemia since infancy.

“I feel like it gave me a mental disorder a little bit. It was really traumatic just going through all that pain as a kid.” —Albert “Prodigy” Johnson on The Therapist

Young M.A. discussed how losing her older brother was traumatic and still is to this day. Waka Flocka Flame talked about the “roller coaster” of anger that accompanied the vehicular and suicidal deaths of his younger brothers. Joey Bada$$ delved into Capital Steez’s suicide, along with his own quick maturity. Freddie Gibbs explored the possibility that he may be suffering from depression following a rape charge he was innocent of.

Nearly all the hip-hop artists came to a revealing realization of needing to own the person they are today because of, and despite, all they’ve been through. As these rap luminaries used their platforms and hardships to navigate through their trauma, they simultaneously brought awareness to a stigma surrounding mental health and therapy in urban communities. Thrive NYC does the same, in addition to providing the tools needed for our communities to take action conveniently, at the tips of our fingers and traveling through cellular airwaves.

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VIBE: What is your relationship to Thrive NYC – your individual personal end goal(s) or personal attachment to the program?
Chirlane McCray: Well, that’s easy, because Thrive is my baby. I’ve had many interests over the years: domestic violence and criminal justice reform, education — especially early education — and so many other things, because I’m drawn to various subject areas. When I realized mental health really is the root to so many of the problems people go through, whether it’s school, employment, our jails, in our shelters, I said, “Aha! This is what I can focus on that will actually connect all of my areas of interest.” Perhaps we can get to the root of this, change the culture, raise cultural awareness about what people are going through; then we can make a substantial change and help people.

So, my connection is very deep. I’m privileged to have gone through the things that I’ve gone through and to still be sitting here. To take all of that and make something positive from it, that’s been my goal. So, it’s the thing I go to bed thinking about and what I wake up to thinking about.

Richard Buery: I guess for me, I’d say professionally, it’s not an area where I did a lot of work on before, so it meant a lot to me that I’d be asked to take on the role. I didn’t really understand the role that mental illness plays in every aspect of our society: our economy, our healthcare system, our education system. I’m a pretty private person, but I found myself in rooms with hundreds of people, talking about my own family’s experiences with mental illness. And I think what’s next at the heart of what must change is creating a society where people are willing to ask for, and offer, help. When that is achieved, we’ll be able to make the kind of change we need to make.

It’s been very empowering for me to improve my own mental wellness, to think about my family a different way. Some of my family suffers from these challenges. I’ve had conversations over the past year with people in my life that I’ve never had before, and it’s entirely because of work I’m doing through this project.

CREDIT: VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis

What approaches does Thrive NYC take to fight or break down these stigmas?
CM: We have 54 different programs, but addressing that stigma is so much a part of all of those programs. Richard says that [before Thrive] he hadn’t had these conversations with anybody in his family, and when I go into any room, I ask people, “Who in this room has never had any experience, whether directly or indirectly, with somebody with mental illness or somebody with a substance abuse issue? Please raise your hand if you’ve never had that experience.” I found that no one has ever raised their hand. This is something that is common in our lives some way or another — it’s a part of the human experience, and that takes away the stigma right there.

We have mental health first aid classes. We’re training a quarter of a million New Yorkers in mental health first aid so they learn to recognize the signs of mental illness and abusing substances in an inappropriate way. Most of us didn’t come up in life with a vocabulary for this, to talk about it. Mostly because it’s something people don’t talk about — they don’t even know how to talk about it. Mental health first aid helps people become more comfortable with whatever they might be going through.

Last year, we had a weekend of faith where we engaged 1,000 houses of worship and put mental health at the top of their agenda. We’d anticipated 300–400 houses of faith, but the hunger is so great out there. These clergy members really wanted to talk about this with their congregations, because they are first responders. People feel they can trust them and can open up and know they will have that confidentiality. That’s so important; that helps people feel like they can talk about this thing they’re going through. Then the burden lifts from their shoulders. We’re encouraging more public conversations to address the stigma, get it out there. If everyone’s going through stuff, it’s not so heavy and deep and dark a secret that needs to be kept in the closet.

CREDIT: VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis

Since you dealt directly with clergy members, were there any who confided in you about unique personal experiences they had with their congregations or any of the church members?
CM: Many of them talked about the problems that they had because people come to them but they’re not necessarily trained on what to do. “Who do I refer them to? How do I even know what it is? Because I know something’s not right, but I know that prayer is not the whole answer here. But what do I do?” We’re working on providing them with online learning with a learning center we hope to launch very soon, so they can get some grounding and some foundation in this.

“We need cultural sensitivity, cultural competency.” –Chirlane McCray

RB: Let me just add a couple of thoughts: Thrive NYC is organized around six pillars. One of those pillars is “change the culture.” It’s really recognizing that until we’re able to change the culture around the way we engage and talk about mental health, until we can talk about mental illness in a way that we talk about having the flu, we’re going to have a structural problem in terms of people’s ability to access and gain care. Cultures don’t change over the course of a week or a month or a fiscal year. It takes time. We don’t know everything about what it’ll take to change the culture and certain things around this issue, so we’re investing in some of these initiatives, [from] a public education campaign to mental health first aid. But at the same time, we’re also trying to see we can grasp an understanding of people’s behaviors and change the ways we think about mental health and wellness to productive and positive ways of thinking.

I want to emphasize mental health first aid because like the First Lady said, we’re going to train a quarter of a million people. Research about this training shows that the people who go through this training produce a change in their prejudice around mental illness and those who suffer from mental illness. When you can get a quarter of a million people actually thinking about it differently, then you know you have begun to really change the culture. Another theme that goes into a lot of this work is this concept called “task shifting.” There’s an understanding that there are several barriers that can stand in someone’s way of seeing a mental health professional or social worker from stigma to access. But, a realization that every day, there are people around the city who are experiencing mental illness, not going to see a psychiatrist, and are still talking to people that they care about and trust. So a big theme that goes into a lot of our work is not only achieving access to formal care but task shifting so that there are more and more people who are quick to provide the support and information.

We’re matching community-based organizations like after-school programs with clinical providers of mental health services so that we can, first, train the after-school program leader – who’s dealing with mental illness whether they know how to, or we’re training those providers to be aware and understand, which enables them to identify these issues. Thrive NYC enables these first responders to build a strong connection with the professional providers so that if at any point a child or a family needs to be connected to a more formal care service, that opportunity does exist.

“The fact that you was a black dude, that kind of comforted me… It just put me in a mode, I’m just keeping it real. I feel like you can understand, you know… Sh**, this whole sh** was racial.” –Freddie Gibbs to Dr. Siri Sat Nam Singh, The Therapist

CM: The mental health recourse ratio that we need to the number of people who live in our country is inadequate, right? And when it comes to a mental health workforce for people of color? Forget it. The disparity is so great. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s not that you need black and brown psychiatrists, but you do need a workforce that is trained and credentialed to be able to take on this work. Our first responders can do some of it. Teachers can do a lot of it. Our officers can be trained to do some of it. We have peer counselors we’re working with to get certified so they can do some of the work. We really must think differently about how services are provided.

For one, we need cultural sensitivity, cultural competency. What I love about what we’re doing in New York City is that the world is right here. There’s at least one of everybody in the world in this city [laughs]. So, if we can be successful, then people can model what we’re doing so that they can take it and do it in their own way, where they are.

Language access is important. Mental health first aid is important because we’re training a quarter of a million New Yorkers, but we’re making sure we’re training all these different ethnic groups, people with different religions, people with different backgrounds, people that are the hardest to reach. We want to ensure we have members of their community who are trained so they can reach them. We want to make sure people get services where they live, where they go to school, where they go after school, and where they worship. That’s how we know we’ll be able to reach people.

CREDIT: VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis

Definitely. So, another key point for Thrive NYC would be access?
CM: Yes. Access and cultural competency. Being able to talk to somebody you trust, who will speak to you with sensitivity. It’s a very personal issue.

RB: Access is something that is reflected so much in Thrive NYC because it’s very complicated just trying to get help. At least everyone understands, conceptually, that if you break an elbow, you go to the emergency room or urgent care. Even if you have insurance, it’s universally understood that once you figure out what your coverage is, despite what the law says, you’ll be connected to the right person who can help you. Particularly, on top of all the stigmas, all the cultural barriers that can stop you from seeking help in the first place, and the fact that people are much less likely to follow through.

Part of expanding access is including initiatives like NYCWell, which is this 24/7 access point to care and follow-up which you can access by phone, text, or chat. You can get connected to a counselor, either a professional mental health provider or a certified peer specialist with experience in mental illness, who can help in everything from providing counseling in that moment to connecting you to the appropriate, affordable care. The specialists will stay on the line with you while you make an appointment, call you the next day and the week after, and make sure that you followed through on the care.

It’s even as simple as bringing care to where people are. We’re bringing social workers to senior centers and schools, which is placing mental health providers in primary care settings…bringing it to places that people feel more comfortable. You might not go to the such-and-such psychiatric center, but you’ll go to your primary care physician and pediatrician. There’s so much that we’re trying to do to make it easier to connect.

CREDIT: VIBE/ Stacy-Ann Ellis

CM: When our daughter [Chiara de Blasio] came home and said she had been diagnosed with anxiety, addiction, and depression, we first questioned, “Is that true? Who told you that?” Then of course, we pondered, “What do we do? Who do we call?”

We talked to family members, I talked to doctors, I looked online, but I didn’t even really know what I was looking for. I really didn’t. Is this situation fit for a social worker, clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, then there’s addiction psychiatrist? All I could think was: “What’s the first call? And where do I go first?” It’s just so difficult to figure that out, and most people don’t really have a clue about any of it — even when it comes to illnesses like bipolar disease and schizophrenia. Most people end up going to an emergency room for service just to figure out what to do.

Having that 24/7, 365-days-a-year help line is so important for people. The trained counselors on the other end of that line can help people figure out what the appropriate next step is for an issue or challenge. Then they decide whether they [the caller] need to refer to a provider or whether it’s something they can take independent steps with: self-care. It’s important to be able to talk to somebody and figure it out.