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A full pandemic recovery demands mental health support


Workers are returning to offices, and children are filing into classrooms. Restaurants, movie theaters and hair salons are opening their doors. The CDC recently declared that the vaccinated can forgo wearing a mask inside as well as outside. A recovery is on the horizon, with a new and deeper reckoning with the centrality of mental health.

Nearly everyone, after the long months of uncertainty and trauma, has a different notion of who they are and what they need. The middle-class professional mother who put her career on hold to manage childcare when schools closed is in a different place than the essential worker who buried three relatives, lost his job, and was not able to socially distance because he shared a one-bedroom apartment with five people.

May is Mental Health Awareness month. At this moment in history, we can all benefit from some heightened self-awareness. Checking in on ourselves and our loved ones, taking time to assess feelings, and knowing when and how to seek support allows for intervention before a crisis. 

Even before the pandemic, 1 in 10 Americans said they were lonely or isolated all or most of the time — feelings associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression and substance misuse. Indeed, a recently released report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said there is evidence that the prevalence of behavioral health conditions has increased while access to services has decreased.

No one should go it alone.

More than ever, localities and all levels of government must step up and play a big role. Here in New York City we offer a model of what can be done. Building on the groundbreaking foundation laid with ThriveNYC, we just announced a “Mental Health for All” recovery effort to bring comprehensive mental health care to all New Yorkers this year and beyond. The new investments include $112 million for citywide expansion of mental health teams that will respond to 911 mental health calls and nearly $50 million in new services for people with serious mental illness.

To reach even more New Yorkers, a mental health check-in will be provided at vaccination sites. To help address the shortage of workers with the skills to identify and connect people to care, a community behavioral health academy (in partnership with the City University of New York) will train more than 5,000 city agency staff and social service providers. We will also launch a public education campaign to help New Yorkers find mental health and substance misuse resources and care.

Perhaps most important, this fall, all NYC public school students will receive a social-emotional health screening, in addition to an academic screening, to assess their well-being. Hundreds of new social workers and psychologists will be available to provide additional support. It is a recognition that along with backpacks and briefcases, children and adults carry a full range of emotions and experiences as we return to our classrooms and offices.

Although mental health is receiving unprecedented attention from the federal government, I agree with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s comments in a recent forum that our country is still not doing enough to address a growing mental health crisis.

At our recent virtual Cities Thrive summit, I talked about seizing the moment, as more local leaders bake mental health into their policies and budgets. Cities Thrive, which I lead, is now a movement: More than 220 localities share practices on how to save lives by shoring up mental health support. Increasingly, these localities are implementing preventive measures to teach WELL-ness skills to our young people.

Recovery efforts will vary from city to city, but asking people what they need is a good place to start. Here in New York City, our Taskforce on Racial Inclusion; Equity (TRIE) zoomed in on 33 neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic. Mental health topped the list of health concerns. So, we expanded mental health services, along with programs for young people, broadband access, and one-stop health centers.

This crisis laid bare the suffering born of inequity, with communities of color, immigrants and poor people bearing the brunt of illness, death, and job loss. More women than men were slammed by the dual demands of work and childcare.

Not forgetting the many lessons of this pandemic is paramount for a full recovery. As my father used to say: If you have your health you have everything; the future is ours. But there is no health without mental health. We cannot tear off our masks and breathe freely again without a deeper investment in how we care ourselves and one another.

Chirlane McCray is First Lady of New York City; her husband is Mayor Bill deBlasio. McCray created ThriveNYC. She also spearheads the Cities Thrive Coalition, with more than 200 mayors, county officials and thought leaders from all 50 states. She was named to TIME Magazine’s 50 Most Influential People in Health Care for 2018. Follow her on Twitter @NYCFirstLady

Tags Health Mental health Mental health professionals New York City Psychiatry Social work Vivek Murthy

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