Public Advocate Calls For Expanding Access To Mental Health Services For Underserved Communities In Council Hearing

April 6th, 2021

Press Release

Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called for expanded access to mental health services for underserved communities, particularly communities of more color, at today's City Council hearing of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction. He highlighted the mental health toll of the ongoing pandemic compounded with the collective trauma of racial injustices like the killing of George Floyd. Given these factors and longstanding inequities, he argued that a commitment in the coming budget to funding services that address rather than perpetuate trauma, together with building new infrastructure like respite centers, is needed as part of a Renewed Deal for New York.

"While the NYPD's budget will be slightly increasing, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's budget is going in the wrong direction. Mental health cannot be just seen again as a simple policing issue. It's not a simple issue at all. But we know we can't fix it by decreasing the agencies that are mandated to try to provide the services needed," said Public Advocate Williams. "Early last month, my Office released a report titled A Renewed Deal for New York City that highlights some solutions that the administration should explore. The upcoming budget should ensure $7 million for two new Respite Centers and $20 million for four new Support and Connection Centers. The latest federal stimulus should help fund this small ask."

The Public Advocate also discussed the stigma around mental health in the Black community, including his own experience, saying, "I am not okay. Those words resonated with a lot of folks last year when I first said them. They understood that what was happening then was too much. In communities of more color, many people still feel that way...These feelings are real, and there needs to be space for us to talk about how we are feeling when overwhelmed." He continues, "When I said those four words last year, I meant them. The raw emotion exists in communities of more color. At the same time, there can be a stigma when discussing how to manage those emotions. Asking for help too often can be seen as weakness. We need to make sure that there is courage and strength to ask a person for help."

Read the full statement from the Public Advocate for today's hearing below.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE COMMITTEE ON MENTAL HEALTH, DISABILITIES, AND ADDICTION - OVERSIGHT HEARING

APRIL 6, 2021

Good morning,

Thank you, Chair Louis. As was mentioned, my name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I again want to thank Chair Louis for holding this very important hearing today and for giving me the opportunity to speak. We know that mental health affects us all. I want to make sure I make that clear. I want to also lift up Deputy Inspector Denis Mullaney, who took his life yesterday, showing that this mental health is very real, across all lines. And I pray for his family, his friends. Even with that being true, it is right to hold a hearing on the impacts in the Black and Brown people of color community.

We've seen, from infection to injection, how much more these communities are affected, and that includes mental health, and that includes sometimes trying to self-medicate to deal with the pain. I have been very open about my own mental health and the services I've received and therapy for at least the past 5 years and the impact that that's had on me in being able to finally have a long, strong, healthy relationship. And I can't imagine trying to go through the times that we're going through now without having access to those services. And I'm saddened for those who do not.

I am not okay. Those words resonated with a lot of folks last year when I first said them. They understood that what was happening then was too much. In communities of more color, many people still feel that way. It is too much when a family member or friend passes away from a virus, again and again. It is too much when people watch videos of death. These feelings are real, and there needs to be space for us to talk about how we are feeling when overwhelmed. I have still have not looked at the video of George Floyd. I can only take a few minutes at a time on CNN when they speak of what's happening in the courtroom.

When I said those four words last year, I meant them. The raw emotion exists in communities of more color. At the same time, there can be a stigma when discussing how to manage those emotions. Asking for help too often can be seen as weakness. We need to make sure that there is courage and strength to ask a person for help. People do not need to suffer. When you are not okay, we need to make sure someone is there to help. And as the Chair mentioned, even unfortunately if you have gotten the coverage and strength to reach out, you sadly may not have the resources to access the help that's needed.

That is why upcoming budget negotiations are important, and why I keep pointing out we have to send a better message of how we're trying to keep people safe and healthy. While the NYPD's budget will be slightly increasing, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's budget is going in the wrong direction. Mental health cannot be just seen again as a simple policing issue. It's not a simple issue at all. But we know we can't fix it by decreasing the agencies that are mandated to try to provide the services needed. We do not simply just need more money for NYPD. We need more money for all of these agencies. We need actual investment for communities of more color that is designed to address, not perpetuate, trauma.

Frankly, communities of more color have struggled with mental health at disproportionate rates. For example, nationally, Black individuals are 20 percent more likely than others to experience serious mental health problems, according to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

The pandemic has only amplified mental health issues. A New York State Health Foundation report found that 42 percent of Latinx and 39 percent of Black New Yorkers reported anxiety or depressive symptoms in October 2020. Clearly, it is difficult for people of more color to deal with the constant threat of the virus, lack of stable job opportunities, rising costs, and so many other concerns.

We should also be mindful of the number of mental health facilities that the Chair mentioned in proximity to communities of more color. There are hundreds of mental health facilities across the City with the most found in Manhattan. Notably, there are some neighborhoods in the City, such as in southeast Queens or northeast Bronx, without a nearby mental health facility at all. That highlights the challenge of accessibility to mental health facilities for so many in New York City.

This is the right opportunity to propose solutions. Early last month, my Office released a report titled A Renewed Deal for New York City that highlights some solutions that the administration should explore. The upcoming budget should ensure $7 million for two new Respite Centers and $20 million for four new Support and Connection Centers. The latest federal stimulus should help fund this small ask.

Finally, we cannot forget about the young people who are also struggling during the pandemic. The budget needs to account for more counselors and mental health staff in schools; not simply again additional funding for NYPD. Universal mental health screening is also needed, especially for students affected by the pandemic. We need to lift up our youth who have been historically marginalized, and the budget should reflect that. I appreciate today's hearing as mental health can still act as a stigma for far too many in communities of more color, communities who need their assistance the most. Genuine investment is needed to make sure we can reduce the stigma and offer help to people of more color who need it. I thank the Chair for allowing me to speak, I look forward to today's testimony. And as we redefine what public safety is, what public health is, I hope our dollars show it, where our priorities are. Thank you.

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