A short time ago, I was at an event, talking to some very smart people about what we can do to address our mental health crisis. The conversation proceeded smoothly, right up until the moment an African American woman suggested her own theory as to why so many of our young people struggle with mental health conditions. “Maybe,” she said, “the next generation isn’t tough enough. Maybe they’ve had it too easy.”
I wish I could say that I was shocked—but I wasn’t. For generations we have held on to a tradition of toughing it out. We have been reluctant to admit that, like people in every other community in this world, we know the pain of mental illness.
Our reluctance is understandable. The survival of our people has required us to never give anyone an excuse to call us weak. And so we bury our anguish deep within ourselves; we keep our business behind closed doors. We wait it out.
Despite our best intentions, this pattern of silent suffering has sentenced far too many African Americans to lifetimes of solitary torment. I saw this firsthand with my father. Robert McCray was a veteran of World War II. Along with my mother, he created a beautiful and stable home for my siblings and me. But he was never able to enjoy his hard-earned success as much as he should have.
My father suffered from depression, but he wouldn’t have called it that. In fact, he never said a word about the chronic sadness he experienced. But I know it was there. I know his life would have been better if he had talked about it and was able to get some help.
Sadly, my father’s story may be all too familiar to many of you. Today, African Americans are 20 percent more likely than their white counterparts to report experiencing serious psychological distress.
This is not a surprise, because we are also more likely to be exposed to risk factors like poverty, discrimination and instability. The trauma of racism is real, and it can have a deep and destructive effect on our minds.
But despite the many risk factors we face, African Americans are 40 percent less likely to have received mental health treatment or counseling in the past year. It all adds up to a disturbing reality: Millions of African Americans suffer from a mental health condition in isolation, which means they are suffering far more than necessary. Because the good news is that mental health issues are treatable. The challenge before us now is to come together as a community and achieve two connected goals:
- We must build an effective mental health system.
- We must start telling each other that to seek help for a mental health condition is not an act of weakness—it is an act of strength.
As your First Lady, I’ve been leading an effort to turn these goals into action. Over the last seven months, I have met with New Yorkers from all five boroughs, and the stories they have told me will be incorporated into a Mental Health Roadmap the de Blasio Administration is releasing this fall.
The Roadmap is a plan of action that will lay out a series of steps we must take to create the kind of mental health system we need—one that brings services to the places where we live, work and go to school, and one that respects the language and culture of the people.
I am inspired by the example of my daughter, Chiara. Two years ago, she revealed to Bill and me that she was suffering from anxiety, addiction and depression. Her admission was just the beginning of a long and often painful journey. Today, Chiara is well into recovery and helping other young people navigate their own recoveries.
And Chiara isn’t alone. Throughout our city, African Americans of all ages are seeking help and beginning to create a new and healthier tradition when it comes to mental health. I am reminded of a quote by the poet and thinker Audre Lorde: “When I envision the future, I think of the world I crave for my daughters and my sons. It is thinking for survival of the species — thinking for life.”
That’s how we, as a people, should be thinking about mental health. We must put aside our old notions and create a world where getting treatment for anxiety is no more difficult than getting treatment for allergies. Our daughters and our sons—and our fathers and our mothers—are counting on us.
Chirlane McCray is the First Lady of New York City. Her Urban Agenda column is sponsored by the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.