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Why NYC’s First Lady Wants to Change How We Talk About Mental Health

Chirlane ​McCray wants to train New Yorkers in what’s called “mental-health first aid.”

Chirlane McCray is one of those public figures whose life stories seem almost designed to fascinate us. She is a poet, a social-justice advocate, a founding member of the iconic black feminist group the Combahee River Collective, and once identified as a radical lesbian, writing fearlessly about homosexuality in Essence magazine at a time when many mainstream publications, black and white, erased LGBTQ people of color. She is also a wife and mother and, currently, first lady of New York City while her husband, Bill de Blasio, is in office as mayor. I wondered how someone who has clearly taken her own path in life is managing to fill this public role that is practically defined by the expectations of other people.

One way that Chirlane has remained Chirlane is that her work as an advocate for others has never stopped. In 2014, McCray and de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara, went public with her struggles with depression, anxiety, and addiction. It’s a topic that many other political families would have hidden away and refused to discuss, but the de Blasios were open and dignified about it, in part because they wanted to reduce the stigma around mental health.

It’s that stigma that prevents many people facing mental-health challenges from talking about what’s going on or accessing services that could help. More and more, cities and states are taking this on as a public-health issue. McCray has launched a program — ThriveNYC — that functions as a “Mental Health Roadmap” for the city, with goals like closing treatment gaps, early intervention, and expanding treatment for maternal depression. A cornerstone of the roadmap is training New Yorkers in what’s called “mental-health first aid.” The one-day workshop provides participants with expanded knowledge about mental health and, importantly, gives them skills to help others who may be facing a mental-health crisis. The program is free and open to the public. A typical class might consist of community members, city workers, religious leaders, correction officers, and anyone else who wants to sign up. Thrive will also establish lasting resource centers in schools, community centers, homeless shelters, and places of worship in the city.

When Chirlane McCray speaks to you, she looks you in the eye the whole time and carefully smiles. Sometimes, when she is excited, she rushes to explain things with her hands and wrists, or traces her fingers across the expanse of the table.

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