Mental Health in NYC: A look back at ThriveNYC and ahead to the Office of Community Health

Michele Neuhaus with Chrirlane McCray at Gracie Mansion

By Michele Neuhaus, LCAT, LMHC, CCLS
Program Director, 0-5 Early Childhood Mental Health Services

a client of the early childhood mental health initiative, ThriveNYC, now Office of Community Mental Health

Strengthening the parent-child bond is core part of the 0-5 ECMH initiative.

Last month, my colleague Yudelka Ramirez, a family peer advocate with The Child Center of NY’s 0-5 Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative, and I attended a Mental Health Allies Reception, hosted by Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlaine McCray at Gracie Mansion.

The purpose of the evening was twofold: to thank all those involved in the success of ThriveNYC, the most comprehensive mental health plan of any city or nation; and to highlight that the work of ThriveNYC will now be achieved through the newly established Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health, making it a permanent part of city government.

As the Child Center ECMH program director from the beginning, the event held special meaning for me. The Child Center has been the sole Queens provider in ThriveNYC’s Early Childhood Mental Health Network, offering mental health services specifically for children 0-5, since it launched in 2016. This gives us a special obligation that the ECMH team has made good on. In the five years since the program’s launch, the Child Center ECMH Initiative has served 1,148 families. We have strengthened bonds between parents (and other caregivers) and their children and provided the tools, guidance, and confidence to raise their children in a safe environment defined by the love they already have for their children. We have helped them work through trauma we wish no family, and certainly no young child, had to face, and build trusting, secure, and loving relationships. Our bilingual and bicultural therapists utilize evidence-based models of treatment that have been proven to make a difference for this age group.

We also have worked with 40 early childhood centers, such as Head Start and Early Head Start, providing early childhood educators with consultations and coaching on incorporating social-emotional learning in the classroom; assistance in identifying and assessing children’s and families’ social and emotional needs; and a place they can feel confident referring families who may need mental health support. This has been an invaluable outreach tool, as many families, especially immigrant families, might not know to look for early childhood mental health services, or even know they exist.

Michele Neuhaus with Chrirlane McCray at Gracie Mansion

from left to right: Yudelka Ramirez, First Lady Chirlane McCray, and Michele Neuhaus (author) at the Mental Health Allies reception at Gracie Mansion. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

It’s important work, and I am grateful to Mayor de Blasio and First Lady McCray for conceiving of the idea for ThriveNYC, ensuring our youngest children would be a part of it, and putting the plan into action, giving it the resources, attention, and brainpower it needed to get off the ground, help erase the stigma attached to mental health services, and provide quality mental health care to New Yorkers in need.

Of course, we have a long way to go. According to ThriveNYC materials, every year, one out of every five adults in New York City experiences mental illness; that’s roughly equivalent to the number of people who live in Manhattan. Yet hundreds of thousands of people go without the care they need because of numerous factors: care costs too much, a therapist’s office is too far from home, or it’s difficult to find a mental health provider who speaks their language or understands their culture. Together, we have made great strides in removing such barriers, but we must continue to move forward until none exist for any New Yorker.

Speakers at the event also noted how important these efforts have been during the COVID-19 pandemic. Counselors and peer specialists at NYC Well, NYC’s free mental health helpline that provides a central point of entry to behavioral health services, fielded more than 200,000 calls, texts, and chats from New Yorkers between April and November this year. (Since it began, the helpline has responded to more than one million calls, texts, and chats from New Yorkers; that’s one million individual people getting the help they need to overcome challenges and thrive.) Under the direction of Susan Herman, ThriveNYC centered equity in its work, bringing mental health care to the communities of color hit hardest in this pandemic with trauma-informed, direct services. Read Melinda’s Story for an idea of just how needed these services truly are.

As we welcome a new mayor and administration to Gracie Mansion next month, my hope is that the work of ThriveNYC continues to grow and be supported in its new home at the Office of Community Mental Health. I’m excited that the Office and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) are piloting perinatal infant mental health consultation in other settings. The Child Center has spearheaded a pilot consultation program in a hospital that will start next month at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst. Two other ECMH network programs recently joined. We are also expanding ECMH consultations in schools and hopefully in foster care settings to help foster mothers and caregivers understand the effects of early childhood trauma on brain development.

Earlier this year, The Child Center opened its Perinatal Intensive Outpatient Program, funded by the New York State Office of Mental Health, to provide mental health services and supports to people who are pregnant or recently gave birth and were newly diagnosed with Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (more commonly known as Postpartum Depression). Our bilingual and bicultural therapists utilize evidence-based, trauma-focused models of treatment to stabilize depression, work on the mother-infant relationship, and support the extended family. Some of our moms have endured significant trauma, and we’ve ensured a trauma-informed environment in which they can feel safe and thrive. It’s been an inspiring experience to see new moms who face what seem like debilitating challenges go on to become the confident, healthy, and loving parents they can be and their babies deserve. This is the kind of program the new Office of Community Mental Health should actively champion.

In the years to come, I hope providers like The Child Center of NY have more influence on the systemic issues within early childhood trauma and that the new administration continues to support our innovative ideas and vital work. As First Lady McCray said, in paraphrasing Frederick Douglass’ famous quote, when she unveiled the Early Childhood Mental Health Network five years ago, “It is easier to grow a healthy child than to mend a broken adult.”

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