Chirlane McCray Enlists New York Clergy in Mental Health Outreach - New York Times
05/22/2016 | News Articles
In a sermon on Sunday to about 450 people at Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, the Rev. Dominique Chantell Atchison searched Scripture for words to help fight the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
She used a story of a disabled man, in St. John’s Gospel, who picked up a mat — forbidden on the Sabbath — and walked to a healing pool to be cured. It was acceptable for the man to pick up the mat, Ms. Atchison explained, and it is acceptable for people to be treated for mental illness.
“People have to find their own way to healing,” she said. “Sometimes, that’s God anointing a therapist or balancing the chemicals in your body with medication.”
Clergy across New York City were talking to their flocks over the weekend about mental health as part of an ambitious education push by Chirlane McCray, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife. The three-day campaign was one of Ms. McCray’s largest engagement efforts to promote ThriveNYC, a plan to overhaul the city’s mental health system. Over four years, the city will spend $850 million on mental health programs.
But first, the public has to be convinced that mental illness exists and that it is acceptable to seek help, Ms. McCray said. Houses of worship, where some parishioners may lean on faith instead of medicine and therapy for mental health issues, seemed a good place to start after an unexpectedly high level of clergy participation, she said.
So many clergy expressed interest that Ms. McCray said she and other officials thought the weekend campaign, which is part of a community outreach initiative that will also include barbershops and beauty salons, could be a way to galvanize support. “They’re front-line workers, they’re first responders,” Ms. McCrary said in an interview on Sunday. “They’re, like, ‘What do we do? People come to us for quote-unquote spiritual guidance, but they are looking for something else.’ They don’t know how to handle it.”
According to the mayor’s office, about 1,000 churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship participated in the three-day event, called Mental Health Weekend of Faith, reaching an estimated 250,000 people.
On Sunday, Ms. McCray, who said she was raised an Episcopalian, traveled from pulpit to pulpit. At the cavernous Riverside Church in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, she followed a choir of fidgety children in purple robes who adorably belted out “This Little Light of Mine.” Seated in a pew, Ms. McCray sang along.
At Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, she looked over a congregation of women in hats, deacons in red blazers and ushers dressed in white. As she spoke to the congregation of St. John Chrysostom Roman Catholic Church in the Bronx, Ms. McCray’s message was translated into Spanish.
Ms. McCray tailored her speeches for each church, but her points remained consistent: Her family has dealt with mental illness, and it is treatable. As a child growing up in Massachusetts, Ms. McCray said, she had hardworking parents who never seemed to be as happy as she thought they should be. They were struggling with depression, she said.
As a parent, Ms. McCray explained, she was caught off guard when her daughter, Chiara de Blasio, said she had depression and substance-abuse issues. “I wished I could just love her, love her into wellness,” Ms. McCray told those gathered at Convent Avenue Baptist Church, who nodded their heads while saying “amen” and “that’s right.” But she said that her love was not enough.
Chiara de Blasio, who has spoken publicly about seeking help in an outpatient therapy program, is “well into recovery,” her mother said, and will soon graduate from college, with ambitions to be a social worker.
Ms. McCray and city commissioners were reaching out to people of many faiths in all five boroughs. On Friday, Ms. McCray spoke at Masjid ’Eesa ibn Maryam, a mosque in Queens. In Brooklyn on Saturday, she visited East Midwood Jewish Center, Bethel Seventh-day Adventist Church and Emmaus Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Many clergy members and parishioners have already participated in what the city called first-aid training to learn how to identify mental illness and better direct people to find professional help. Ms. McCray laid the groundwork earlier this year, visiting some churches and holding a meeting with clergy at Gracie Mansion.
Jaspreet Kaur, a staff lawyer for the organization United Sikhs, said she got involved through those initial meetings. She is now trying to engage the Sikh community and initiate conversations about issues that “they are too scared to even have a discussion about,” she said.
Ms. Atchison said that after Ms. McCray visited her church in March, more than a dozen parishioners approached her for advice about relatives or co-workers with mental illness. “It normalized the struggles that some people might have dealt with in their own families,” Ms. Atchison said.
The Rev. Que English, a senior pastor at Bronx Christian Fellowship, said mental health issues were on the list of taboo subjects, like AIDS and domestic violence, that her church was now tackling. “The old adage, ‘What goes on in the house stays in the house’ has been quite harmful to families and the community at large,” Ms. English said. “The pulpit isn’t simply to discuss chapter and verse but to address issues that plague our parishioners when Monday morning rolls around.”