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Change Maker Awards: Chirlane McCray, for Fighting for Access to Mental Health Care for All New Yorkers

May 22, 2015

One of the toughest things about mental illness is how lonely it can be. When you’re struggling emotionally, you need allies and advocates who will do research, make phone calls, find the most appropriate care, and offer support while you do the work it takes to get better.

No one knows this better than Chirlane McCray, who is the First Lady of New York. Chirland has been that ally and advocate for her daughter Chiara, and now she’s is trying to do it for the whole city.

Chirlane’s daughter Chiara struggled with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as a teenager. “Our child was in a great deal of pain, terrible pain, but because it originated in her mind, and not another part of her body, there was no established series of steps for us to follow,” Chirlane said at the Change Maker Awards ceremony, as she accepted the Activist Award.

And Chirlane and her husband, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, were acutely aware that they had the connections and the resources many other parents in the city don’t have.

“All the time I was looking for someone to help her, all the time I was talking with people, I wondered, what about families who don’t have the advantages that we have? Like, how do they do it?” she said. “And how can we create a mental health system that works for every New Yorker?”

So this past January, Chirlane announced that under her guidance the city will be crafting a new “road map” to address mental health issues and create a more inclusive mental health system. City agencies will work with community groups to investigate the scope of the problem, the number of people affected, and their demographics, including race and socio-economic status. Then they will make recommendations that cut through bureaucracy to get children and adults quality mental help faster.

The mental health road map won’t be ready until this summer. So in the meantime, Chirlane and Chiara together have launched NYC Teen Text, an initiative that enables students at high schools throughout the city to to receive confidential help and emotional support via text when they need it. And she’s tweeting up a storm, with hashtag #ShatterTheStigma, to open up honest discussions about mental health care needs.

When the Germanwings flight went down in March, she wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times. “Mental health care must be as accessible as getting a flu shot,” she wrote. “We must seek to change the culture so that people realize that seeking treatment for mental illness is an act of strength, not weakness.”

Chirlane has been both a poet and an activist all her adult life. We applaud her for using the platform she enjoys as First Lady to offer her support to all New Yorkers who struggle with mental illness. And we were delighted to hear her report: “Our family was lucky; we eventually found enough of what we were looking for. And Chiara is now kicking butt at recovery.”

Tagged with: Change Makers