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It Takes A Village – or a City Rather…

First Lady of NYC Chirlane McCray

New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray is making headlines for her important work promoting mental health at the local and national levels.

McCray, who’s parents both suffered from depression and who’s daughter recently came out as struggling with a co-occuring depression and substance use disorder, has been a strong advocate for mental health services during her time as First Lady of New York City.

In a recent article by Kaiser Health News, McCray discusses how cities (and mayors in particular) are best positioned to help improve access to mental health care, given their own direct contact with the public and the relationships they share with other local community leaders. “Unlike governors, and unlike members of Congress, mayors are right there, dealing with the everyday struggles of people” says McCray.

In addition to her personal connection to mental illness, as First Lady of NYC, McCray also has her husband’s constituent’s to consider. As many as one in five New Yorkers experience depression, less than half of whom actually receive treatment according to Kaiser Health News. McCray is hoping to change that.

“But how?” you may ask. One strategy the First Lady discusses is increasing the number of people trained to support individuals experiencing mental illness. McCray is an outspoken advocate of Mental Health First Aid, an evidence based crisis intervention process which trains people how to respond when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis. She also discusses how everyone in the community can learn ways to help someone living with mental illness, whether it’s a clergy person, public safety professional or just a friend.

“You don’t need a psychiatrist to treat depression, which is the number one cause of disability now in our nation” says McCray. “You don’t need a psychiatrist to help someone with anxiety disorder, necessarily. All these diseases have a range from mild to severe.”

As someone who has dealt with mental illness personally, whether through my own experiences or those of friends and loved ones, it is that mental wellness requires a multi-faceted approach to be maintained. While I believe strongly in (and encourage people to seek) the support offered by trained mental health professionals such as clinical psychologists and psychiatrists (because I do believe there are certain things that they can help with, given their very intensive training, that even the most well intending lay person cannot), mental health is also maintained through other means, such as proper nutrition, adequate sleep, rigorous exercise, positive social relationships, purposeful activity, recreation, meditation, a positive attitude, among many other things.

And this is where McCray hits the nail on the head – by looking to give everyday New Yorkers, and not just mental health professionals, the tips and tricks of the trade, including the information and training necessary to be able to do a basic assessment to see if a referral to a more highly trained professional may be in order. In so doing, an entire citizenry can assist in promoting mental health. As mental health advocates, we must continue to push for comprehensive public education and awareness on the signs and symptoms of mental illness, as well as the resources and treatments available to those who need them. I hope that others who hold positions of power and influence will follow First Lady McCray’s lead and make mental health a top priority on their agendas.

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