Last Tuesday, more than 70 attendees from prominent nonprofits and local agencies gathered at the Bronx Zoo to talk with District Attorney Darcel Clark about solutions to the mental health and criminal justice issues affecting the city’s northernmost borough.
“Since I’ve become DA, and even before that in my judicial career, mental illness and mental health in this community has been a priority,” said Clark. “And it’s also one of the areas of resources that have been lacking so much in the Bronx. New York City and New York State [are] always talking to do more to help communities of color to bridge that gap. But nothing has ever happened, so I have decided that I cannot wait for others.”
At the summit, panels discussed challenges they were facing while addressing mental health in the Bronx. Many organizations found ways to collaborate and cover the gaps in each other’s work. Groups represented included the Bronx Psychiatric Center, Montefiore Medical Center and the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.
Housing was the top issue discussed. Advocates highlighted the traumas unhoused individuals face from the constant fears of personal safety. To them, not only was there a need for affordable housing but supportive housing—Clark mentioned the limitations of shelters, saying they only offered a place to sleep but lacked counseling, job training and other forms of enrichment.
To Clark, the summit’s focus was to prevent trips to Rikers Island, which the district attorney called the “biggest mental health facility we have” due to the lack of primary care. So alternatives begin outside of the criminal justice system. Beyond social workers and therapists, Clark believes those with firsthand experience with mental health issues and incarceration should be leading the charge.
“You’re going to listen to somebody who’s been there, as opposed to somebody who you feel is like just wagging their finger to say ‘you better do this, and you got to do that,’” she said. “And I think that in order for this to really work, we need real credible messengers.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w