When: Yesterday, April 18th
Where: National Geographic Encounter in Times Square
Who: New York City and State Health care researchers, policymakers and providers
Why: New York City and State are facing serious health challenges and opportunities to improve the health of all New Yorkers
What about mental health? First up.
I had the honor of moderating the summit’s opening session, Challenges and Solutions for Mental Health Care. Two decades ago this kind of summit might not have included mental health at all. A decade ago it might have been at the end of the day – after all the “important” topics had been covered. This time, the summit opened with mental health. It seems so obvious now that we have reached this milestone, but trust me, it has been a steep climb.
1. Commissioner Howard A. Zucker, New York State Department of Health. As soon as he starts speaking, you know that Commissioner Zucker is from the Bronx, and it’s not only that distinct Bronx accent that gives him away. He is proud of New York through and through. He also has on the tip of his tongue many health statistics about New Yorkers – including worrisome rates of homelessness, food insecurity and exposure to violence in the past year. Our youth are not active (26% doing no physical activity and thus, about 30% are overweight and another 30% obese) and school failure rates are too high. Commissioner Zucker recognized these factors as social determinants of health, including mental health, and concluded by saying that mental health and wellness are not the proprietary concerns of individuals with mental illness, but rather essential population metrics for a vibrant city and state.
2. Commissioner Ann Marie Sullivan, New York State Office of Mental Health. A psychiatrist who has worked in the public sector for her entire career, Commissioner Sullivan is passionate about getting mental health education properly integrated into school curricula. She is also committed to increasing engagement of peers and family advocates on this mission to improve mental health services. Notably, she celebrated the work of the non-profit advocacy group, Mental Health Association in New York State, that led the campaign to require that instruction about mental health be incorporated into all school health curricula. Signed into law by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, this legislation takes effect July 2018.
3. Executive Deputy Commissioner Gary Belkin, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Dr. Belkin has worked to advance mental health around the world. Here in NYC, he has imported many learnings from his experiences in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere and has been one of the pioneers responsible for developing and delivering Thrive NYC. With NYC first lady Chirlane McCray as its most vocal ambassador, Thrive NYC has 54 mental health programs that are enhancing service, expanding reach, and improving outcomes.
4. Commissioner Ana Bermudez, New York City Department of Probation. Now we are talking trauma. Mental illness is highly stigmatizing. But it can be worse. Imagine the experience of having mental illness and being somehow involved with the justice system. Most individuals with mental illness never come into contact with the legal system except to pay traffic and parking violations – just like all good citizens. But certain mental health conditions increase the likelihood that an individual will have a criminal record, and spending time in the “justice” system will increase the likelihood of having mental health concerns. We know trauma increases risk for mental illness, and Commissioner Bermudez has witnessed first hand how traumatizing the criminal justice system is for those it is supposed to serve.
5. Dr. Charles Barron, Medical Director of Behavior Health, New York City Health + Hospitals. So, what can we do? Dr. Barron is passionate about providing more access points for mental health care. He is rolling up his sleeves and working with partners around the city to provide more integrated care and expand community-based services, and peer services. NYC is a low-income, middle-income and high-income city, and getting equitable, efficient and effective care to all citizens is yeoman’s work.
These five public servants are dedicated, passionate, and empowered to advance mental health in New York. But every one of them emphasized that the only way that we will have a healthier New York is if every New Yorker owns the problem and contributes to creating and pursuing solutions. This is definitely a case where rising water lifts all boats.