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For De Blasio Family, Announcement of Mental Health Plan Is Personal

By Jeff Mays | November 24, 2015 8:36am

EAST HARLEM — With his voice cracking and his eyes watering, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wished he had the same knowledge he gathered while helping his daughter Chiara deal with drug and depression issues as his father was struggling with alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder decades ago.

"I certainly saw in my father — and I say this with real sorrow — what happens when a problem is not addressed," de Blasio said of his father, a World War II hero who suffered from alcoholism and eventually committed suicide.

The mayor said his father's situation felt hopeless. Even "after many, many drinks," the mayor's father denied an alcohol problem. "It felt like the unmovable reality," de Blasio said.

De Blasio and first lady Chirlane McCray hope their new plan called ThriveNYC, an attempt to shift the way mental health issues are handled in the city, will change that reality for many New Yorkers.

"We are facing a public health crisis. Too many New Yorkers in every community aren't getting the treatment they need," said McCray, who led the effort that was a year in the making.

"With this roadmap we are sending a message that we will no longer avoid suffering that we know how to fix," she added.

Under the plan, the city will spend $850 million over the next four years to push 23 new initiatives designed to make it easier for New Yorkers to seek mental health help while removing the stigma from doing so. The changes include:

► The city will send 400 doctors and clinicians into the city's neighborhoods as part of a mental health corps to provide 400,000 additional hours of treatment.

► Train 250,000 New Yorkers in mental health first aid to spot the signs of mental health issues and to be able to provide better support.

► There will be more mental health providers in schools. Approximately 9,200 early learning teachers will receive training on how to teach mental health self awareness. In 2017, the city will assess mental health services in 100 schools and immediately provide 100 mental health consultants to make sure kids citywide are quickly connected with care.

► The city will also launch an online mental health finder to connect New Yorkers to treatment.

Other elements of the initiative that have already been announced include NYCSafe, a plan to help deal with the violently mentally ill, an announcement by de Blasio last week that the city will not wait for state aid and spend $2.6 billion to fund 15,000 units of supportive housing for the mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless over the next 15 years, and an effort to screen expecting mothers for depression.

Dr. Gary Belkin, executive deputy commissioner for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the plan ranked as "one of the most complete, serious approaches by a city" on mental health challenges.

Mental health advocates such as former first lady Rosalynn Carter and Tipper Gore, who is separated from former Vice President Al Gore, and providers around the city praised the effort in statements.

D.J. Jaffe, founder and executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., said he supports the mayor's supportive housing plan but feels ThriveNYC doesn't focus enough on the most seriously mentally ill.

"The reality is that even if you are identified as seriously mentally ill you can't get treatment and that's what this ignores," Jaffe said.

The event seemed more personal for de Blasio. Both of his children, who attend college, were present.

De Blasio said his daughter's recovery was moving well, and she agreed.

"I would say that there’s always challenges, and by no means is ... my mental health or my life perfect, but I think that the difference between a few years ago and now is that I have the tools," Chiara de Blasio said.

The mayor even said he sought treatment for a short while when he was a graduate student.

But talking about his father, the mayor expressed a real sense of regret at the way mental health was handled then.

"We didn’t know how to do anything different," de Blasio said. "We were a family that had our strengths, but we didn’t know how to do anything that would break through."