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New York’s Department of Homeless Services is Changing the City’s Culture with Mental Health First Aid

More than 60,000 people in New York city are homeless. That statistic includes more than 15,000 families and 22,000 children who sleep each night in the New York City municipal shelter system. What’s more, a large majority of people who are homeless also live with a mental illness.

New York’s Department of Homeless Services has taken note and is actively working to raise the bar on the kinds of services they provide. Their overarching goal is to standardize the level and quality of care and services for everyone.

And a big part of that involves Mental Health First Aid training, according to First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Jacqueline Bray. Their department has secured funding to ensure all of their staff is trained in Mental Health First Aid.

“When everyone respects each other, we can both provide and receive the best care,” said First Deputy Commissioner Bray. “That starts with people recognizing mental illness.”

Mental Health First Aid not only trains people the hard skills of what mental health is, the signs and symptoms to look out for and how to respond; it helps people learn empathy for people living with serious mental health challenges and illnesses.

That’s one of the many ways New York City is looking to change their culture: through building empathy.

The Department of Homeless Services deeply believes that building empathy for those living with mental illness isn’t tangential to what they’re doing. Rather, it’s a core component of their mission.

Before First Deputy Commissioner Bray came onto the scene, the Department of Homeless Services had already made the commitment to train 750 to 1,000 staff members in Mental Health First Aid. In the last month, they renewed that commitment by pledging to train 100 percent of their frontline staff in Mental Health First Aid over the next two to three years.

That translates into approximately 8,000 people becoming trained in Mental Health First Aid.

“So much of what we see, I believe, is the result of trauma and intergenerational trauma,” said First Deputy Commissioner Bray. “And so, not only is it important to build the skills of how to de-escalate and respond to a mental health crisis in a way that doesn’t exacerbate it, it’s also important we’re doing that with an eye to humanizing those individuals experiencing crises.”

The Department of Homeless Services is not just training their social workers. They’re not just training their nurses. They’re aiming to train everyone – their motor vehicle officers, their maintenance staff, security staff, janitorial staff and more.

By cultivating this reach, they are benefiting their clients as well as the staff themselves. Mental Health First Aid is helping staff to not only intervene more appropriately with their clients, it is enabling them to take better care of their own mental health.

New York’s Department of Homeless Services is a fantastic example of an institution that is holding the city to a high standard. Through empathy building and Mental Health First Aid trainings, they are well on their way to changing the culture and eliminating mental health stigma across New York.