The First Lady of New York Wants You to Be a Mental-Health Healer

Chirlane McCray shares why she wants to destigmatize mental-health issues and make access to mental-health care simple and affordable.

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Chirlane McCray is one of those public figures whose life stories seem almost designed to fascinate us. She is a poet, a social-justice advocate, a founding member of the iconic black feminist group the Combahee River Collective, and once identified as a radical lesbian, writing fearlessly about homosexuality in Essence magazine at a time when many mainstream publications, black and white, erased LGBTQ people of color. She is also a wife and mother and, currently, First Lady of New York City while her husband, Bill de Blasio, is in office as mayor. I wondered how someone who has clearly taken her own path in life is managing to fill this public role that is practically defined by the expectations of other people.

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One way that Chirlane has remained Chirlane is that her work as an advocate for others has never stopped. In 2014, McCray and de Blasio's daughter, Chiara, went public with her struggles with depression, anxiety, and addiction. It's a topic that many other political families would have hidden away and refused to discuss, but the de Blasios were open and dignified about it, in part because they wanted to reduce the stigma around mental health.

It's that stigma that prevents many people facing mental-health challenges from talking about what's going on or accessing services that could help. More and more, cities and states are taking this on as a public-health issue. McCray has launched a program —ThriveNYC— that functions as a "Mental Health Roadmap" for the city, with goals like closing treatment gaps, early intervention, and expanding treatment for maternal depression. A cornerstone of the roadmap is training New Yorkers in what's called "mental-health first aid." The one-day workshop provides participants with expanded knowledge about mental health and, importantly, gives them skills to help others who may be facing a mental-health crisis. The program is free and open to the public. A typical class might consist of community members, city workers, religious leaders, correction officers, and anyone else who wants to sign up. Thrive will also establish lasting resource centers in schools, community centers, homeless shelters, and places of worship in the city.

When Chirlane McCray speaks to you, she looks you in the eye the whole time and carefully smiles. Sometimes, when she is excited, she rushes to explain things with her hands and wrists, or traces her fingers across the expanse of the table.

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Kaitlyn Greenidge: Why is the issue of mental health, and access to mental-health care, so important to you?

Chirlane McCray: Mental-health challenges have been a part of my life since I was a child. My parents both suffered from depression at different times in their lives, which greatly affected me, even though I didn't realize it until I was older. I also had a very good friend in high school who took her own life, and many other episodes with extended family members that affected me. These things were happening, and I didn't have the words to explain them or understand them. Because of that, I've been fascinated with the life of the mind and with emotions for a long, long time.

My most recent experience was with our daughter. She is well into recovery now, but she suffered from depression, addiction, and anxiety. These personal experiences have made me sensitive to what so many other people go through, especially in terms of our children. More than anything I want to make sure our children get a better start to life. There are many things in life beyond our control, but I know that if we can just lay a good foundation for our young people, it will help.

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KG: You've set up a "Mental Health Roadmap" with ambitious goals. One of the greatest challenges surrounding this issue is, of course, stigma. People don't feel comfortable talking about these issues, so they go untreated and can escalate to a crisis when they don't have to. Do you think you can make a difference?

CM: I think we actually are changing culture. To me that is probably the most important thing we can do, because if we don't change the culture people won't feel comfortable talking about it. Right? And that means they won't take steps to seek treatment. It means they won't try to expand their education, or have tools to help others who might need it. Visiting neighborhoods and talking about it, it is clear that people are receptive and hungry for more information. I think that is huge. They begin to recognize how deeply this issue affects every aspect of our life, from education to criminal justice.

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KG: I'm wondering if you can talk a little about involving communities of color in this initiative?

CM: It is very important to me that when we started taking on this issue that we were able to address all communities and especially communities that have the most need. It's interesting because the black community, the Bangladeshi community, the Latino community, the Korean community, and the Chinese community all say "This really affects us, and there is a huge stigma." And it's insular, contained within each group. No one is really talking about it outside of the community they belong to.

KG: How have religious leaders been responding to the program?

CM: We have had many leaders of faith-based communities take the mental-health first-aid training. They're first responders just as much as our police officers and our fire officers are. Our goal is to train a quarter of a million New Yorkers. And we are targeting different communities to make sure we get representatives from as many different communities that we feel are not necessarily represented. During this past weekend I went to a synagogue, a mosque, two nondenominational churches, a Catholic church, and a Baptist church and asked them all to get training.

KG: One of the things that I was also really struck by is that this campaign takes the view that there's something that a layperson can do to help when a loved one is having a mental-health crisis. The response is oftentimes "I'm supposed to step away. This is not the place for me. An expert is needed." There's a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. It seems like it's important to you for everyone to know that there's something they can do for a loved one or even a stranger with mental-health issues.

CM: I really want people to understand that anyone and everyone can be a healer. It's so important, especially for your friends and family members, to be conscious and aware of that. Who knows a loved one dealing with mental illness better than their family, right? You know what that person is capable of. You know how to calm them. If you have an understanding of what the challenge is, you can begin to help heal. That's why mental-health first aid is so important. Everyone can be a healer, but you do have to have some basic understanding of how someone might be afflicted.

And I think that by taking mental-health first-aid classes, people become less prejudiced. They see people differently, and they have a better understanding of their own health as well. We become more cognizant of issues like anxiety or the ability to regulate your behavior. And that's important because life is tough. It might only be a matter of time before something happens and you need to fall back on those skills.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Kaitlyn Greenidge is Lenny's contributing writer. Her book We Love You, Charlie Freeman was published by Algonquin in 2016.

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