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The City’s New Initiative on Mental Health Reform - Does it Reform Enough?

I have been working for the past month on a petition to the White House to mandate character development/mental health education to be taught in all schools and surreptitiously I was asked to cover NCY’s mental health initiative that was presented Feb 23 at City Hall by the City First Lady Charlene McCray. It was a low key round-table event held for an intimate group of journalists for the Jewish Orthodox community. This is in line with the city’s strategy to reach out to all ethnic groups with the hope that minorities and all the different ethnic groups will be able to hear the message if it is brought to them through one of their own. What is the message?

Essentially it is that mental illness in one form or another be it drug misuse or abuse, depression, anxiety, bi-polarism or post partum depression is more common than most of us know or want to believe. She stated that 20% of all New Yorkers have at one time or another been afflicted by some form of it. 25% of all health related expenditures is mental illness related. Last year NY City lost $14 billion through medical care or wasted productivity from work.

She went on to say that mental illness affects everyone including the Jewish community. The City’s program to combat this problem is called “Thrive NYC - A Mental Health Roadmap for All”. In a nutshell the aim of the program is to identify problem children from very early on and refer them to seed individualized attention. Ms. McCrae went on to say that she experienced hardship when her daughter was affected by mental illness for awhile and the book on this program spelled out that the Mayor’s own daughter had a problem of addiction to drugs and was depressed for which she got treatment and is now doing well. That was the theme of the presentation - the City wants to destigmatize mental illness and in that way catch a problem early and it is much easier to deal with before it gets out of control. “It is easier to grow a healthy child than to mend a broken heart” was her refrain. Chirlane McCrae who worked in Maimonidies for 5 years is accustomed to the culture of the Jewish Orthodox and says that often in our community because we stress self resilience and strength that we can get caught up in the thinking that we should not seek help when help is indeed needed.

"Thrive NYC” is a new program - only since November of last year and the administration is asking all the questions relating to reform the methods of treatment for this heretofore unspoken, in the shadows tremendous problem that the city and quite frankly the nation is dealing with. It is instructing pharmacies to provide the antidote for heroin overdoses along with readily available numbers that one can access 24/7. It is also being stressed that interactions from someone in acute distress are followed up with more routine and regular treatment through referrals and scheduling appointments so that the person should not fall into distress again. Similarly women are more closely observed through their primary doctors and OBGYN’s to make sure that women are not falling into an undiagnosed post partum depression.

The city is going to offer the equivalent of mental health CPR and will in fact train trainers to promulgate the ‘new culture’ of not sweeping mental illness under the rug and to teach the various communities through these trainers how to spot people struggling with mental problems. As it is there are studies to show that a child is

treated as much as 9 years after the onset of symptoms. That is to say that if a child first experiences problems at the age of 9 that it is not usual for that child to finally get treatment at age 18.

Some of the questions from our group of journalists were whether the publication “Mental Health Roadmap” could be translated to Yiddish to which the answer was no since the city didn’t own publishing rights to the publication and whether the city would subsidize more the treatment of mental illness provided by a private practitioner. The answer to that was was - no - one is pretty much on their own and subject to market rate fees when they go to a private practitioner but going to health clinics which there are more of is a solution to that. I asked whether the A.C.A. Affordable Care Act is being more generous for mental health treatment and the answer was that there is much more improvement to hope for in that arena.

Some more provocative questions came from someone who asked about whether the city would promote “spirituality” in the treatment of mental illness. The answer to that was that the City is not actually in the business of treating mental illness just facilitating to make treatment more available and remove the stigma of the culture that says that going for treatment is something to be ashamed of. I felt that this was the perfect opportunity for me to advocate for the program that I see is even more transformational than that of the City’s Thrive NYC. I asked Ms. McCrae what she thought of the idea of providing not “treatment” but mental health education to students K thru 12 by introducing healthy character traits to live by - such as 1) honesty 2) humility 3) kindness 4) respect 5) gratitude 6) tolerance

7) compassion responsibility 9) persistence and 10) loyalty. These are not religious concepts per se because they are universal concepts that all civilized societies abide by and cherish al least in principle. I explained that these character traits can be taught within the context of weekly discussions among the students in a classroom setting lead by a trained teacher. This would provide an atmosphere of learning to express emotions and to hear the feelings of others as well. This would answer much of the alienation problem of groups not getting along with each other because they don’t know the other’s culture. This would also bring out the child with more dark feelings before the feelings overwhelm the child and force him or her into an avenue of self destruction or that of destroying others and can be both.

Charlene thought it was a good idea but I could tell that she didn’t take my proposal seriously. Later I asked her privately what she thought of it and she said that it is already being done in some schools. I told her that that’s not enough - that it has to be mandated in schools the way physical education is. The bottom line is that the City is doing something substantial for mental health but in my opinion due to the erosion of the family the diminished influence of religion and the adoption of the culture of the 60’s with violent movies, video games and offensive and violence laden lyrics by hip hop ‘artists’, we will continue to see students act in self destructive and violent ways because this program is not foundational enough to cope with the madness of our times.

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