EAST NEW YORK — Just as a songstress belted out a high note on the ground floor of the East New York Seventh Day Adventist Church, New York City’s first lady was also testifying on a much more secular topic, “How was Iowa?”
“Iowa was phenomenal,” Chirlane McCray told Bklyner of her two-day dash to the Midwestern state. The trip came on the heels of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement to run for president. “Great feedback, wonderful people, good conversations most importantly,” she added.
That day, on May 18, an hour after landing at Laguardia Airport from The Hawkeye State, McCray addressed a full congregation at the East New York church at 511 Elton St. The Saturday service is one of several visits to houses-of-worship McCray made as part of her faith-based mental health program, an initiative under the umbrella of New York City’s Thrive NYC.
Now in its fourth year, the weekend-long event has grown nationwide from 1,000 participating houses-of-worship to 2,500, in every state, including Washington DC and Puerto Rico.
This year’s Weekend of Faith, (May 16 – May 19) began with an Iftar and included visits to synagogues and churches of different Christian denominations. The goal is to initiate dialogue in the city’s faith communities on mental health assistance. Historically, some faith-followers have been known to rely on their pastors, priests, rabbis and imams for some mental-health-related issues. McCray wants people to know there’s more help.
“Some [faith leaders] have had that training, but they don’t all have that training,” McCray said of the clergy. “But they know that not everything thing can be prayed away,” adding that prayer is only one component of healing.
Recently the $850 million initiative has come under fire and has been criticized for its rollout and for not providing measurable data to substantiate its progress. But the scrutiny hasn’t stopped the first lady. And even after a two-hour City Council hearing on Thrive NYC and its performance, McCray is looking to amplify the initiative, this time on a national level during her husband’s campaign trips.
The trumpeting began during the couple’s first trip to Iowa since the mayor announced, where McCray participated in a mental health forum.
“They have probably more severe challenges than we have because so many of their workers, so many of their psychiatrists, are leaving the state,” McCray said of Iowa’s dwindling healthcare workforce.
Nationwide, 50% of Americans have been diagnosed with mental health issues at some point, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 18.5% of servicemembers who have returned from Afghanistan or Iraq suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a RAND Corporation study. Yet, only half actually seek treatment, according to the same study.
The statistics are similar for students. According to the CDC, the rate of depression and anxiety among children ages 3 to 17 increased from 5.14% in 2003 to 8.4%in 2012. A 2019 Health Resources and Services Administration study puts that number between 13% and 20%.
This at a time when healthcare providers who treat mental health are outnumbered 47 to 4 by social workers. Brooklyn, for example, has 4 psychiatrists per 10,000 children, while its neighboring borough, Manhattan, shows 55 for the same number of children, the CDC study says.
For McCray, mental health hits close to home. McCray has been open about her parents suffering from depression, although undiagnosed. Her daughter Chiara de Blasio, in 2014, wrote and spoke publicly about her own bouts of depression and addiction.
“My growing up experience is very much a part of why I do all of the things I do,” she said, the proud mother of two would see her other child, Dante de Blasio, graduate from Yale graduate in the coming days.
Dante de Blasio and his sister Chiara were active in the 2013 mayoral campaign, with Dante de Blasio even winning some praise for his Afro from then-President Barack Obama. This time, however, McCray made no promises as to the extent of their participation.
“They have their own lives and also their own schedules and so there’s no set plan,” she said. “They’re both supportive and they’ll make their own choices about where they want to be and what they want to do.”
Dante de Blasio has since said he supports his father but isn’t sure he’s jumping in the race during a New York Post interview.
McCray’s national exposure could propel McCray into her own elected seat. But when asked about running for office the first lady shied away from confirming.
“I’ve never been someone who sought the spotlight,” McCray said. “And as a writer and as someone who has always kind of been in the background it’s not something that has ever been my goal.”
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” she added.
And while the 64-year-old agreed that elected office would help champion her mental health awareness platform, she said the inspiration to do the work that she does comes from within.
“This gives me an even bigger platform to spread the word about Thrive, to spread the word about the Weekend of Faith,” she said when asked if it bothers her that the mayor is stealing the spotlight.
“I support him, I think that he would be a fantastic president and people need his kind of leadership and they need someone how knows how to do what he’s already done.”
“I’m the number one supporter,” she said.