New York City first lady Chirlane McCray speaks at the National Action Network conference in New York City on April 18, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)

New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, told the audience here at the National Action Network Convention on Wednesday that “we all deal with mental illness, but we don’t talk about it.” People nodded their heads, saying, “That’s right”and “Mmm-hmm,” as she talked about shattering the stigma of discussing mental health publicly.

The session was filled to capacity, with listeners standing wall-to-wall around the cramped room of 100-plus people. High-ranking city officials from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene were on the panel, too, to speak about the services it provides.

It was a safe space for black folk to ask for help, spaces McCray has worked to create during her years as first lady.

When the Rev. Al Sharpton introduced her, he mentioned Stevante Clark, whose brother, Stephon, was shot and killed by police in Sacramento, Calif., on March 18. Stevante became a subject of discussion when he began hugging Sharpton as he eulogized Stephon at the slain man’s funeral.

“I can’t tell you how many tweets I got from people saying, ‘Why was that boy’s brother hugging you while you were doing the eulogy? He must be crazy,’” Sharpton said during his introduction of McCray. “Well, first of all, he’s grieving and you don’t know how anyone would react. But second of all, if he had a problem, what are you denouncing him for? We’re supposed to be there to comfort him.”

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McCray herself sounds very much like an evangelist when discussing mental health, often encouraging audiences to open up about how the issue has affected them personally. She mentioned the tragic deaths of Deborah Danner, in 2016, and, most recently, Saheed Vassell, both of whom were shot and killed by New York City police officers during mental health episodes. They weren’t “getting the services they needed,” she said.

Aletha Maybank, deputy commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, speaks with participants during the National Action Network’s annual conference in New York City on April 18, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)

In addition to saying that officers will be paired with mental health professionals more often, McCray touted Thrive NYC, which provides free mental health training to to New Yorkers. She told the audience that the city has a number people can call or text if they or someone they know is having a mental health crisis or a substance-misuse issue.

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“I’m so grateful that many of you are here for this conversation,” she told the audience. “If we can’t talk about, we sure can’t do anything about it. So let me ask you a question: How many of you are dealing with a mental health challenge right now? Yourself, or through somebody that you care about? Please raise your hand. All right, let me see those hands. Let me see them. I don’t see every hand up, which means somebody doesn’t know your friends and your family.”

A light laughter filled the room, an indirect confirmation that McCray is right: A lot of us may not know if our loved ones are hurting. One of the hardest things for anyone—especially black folk—to do is admit that we need mental health treatment.

Nationally, black people have very limited access to mental health care. The American Psychological Association reports that 25 percent of black children are exposed to violence that makes them prone to post-traumatic stress disorder and that poverty further exacerbates poor people’s ability to get help.

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If former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama’s signature issue was health, McCray’s is mental health. Nationally, few have taken on the subject in such a robust manner, and it very well may be a key talking point of hers if she decides to run for mayor of New York City, which she has been considering and discussed publicly. NAN was an ideal space for her to speak in, since she enjoys high popularity among the city’s black voters.

(McCray’s husband, Bill de Blasio, is the current mayor of New York.)

After the panel, members of the audience crowded the dais to ask the medical professionals advice and collect business cards. There was a sincere interest from folks wanting to get help for their loved ones and themselves.

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Dr. Byron Young, a child psychiatrist, speaking with audience members at the NAN conference on April 18, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)

“What’s been interesting is that we really didn’t have a lot of rooms like this [in the past] where we as health officials could convene conversations around mental health,” Aletha Maybank, deputy commissioner of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said after the panel ended. “We would talk about diabetes and heart disease, then somebody would say, ‘How come we’re not talking about mental health?’ More and more, we’re recognizing the intersection of physical disease, mental health, trauma, what happens in your neighborhood when you see shootings, social media. All of these things impact our mental health. So, lately, when we talk about mental health, these places are packed.”

McCray’s own daughter, Chiara de Blasio, opened up about her own struggle with depression and drug abuse in 2013, after her father won his mayoral bid. After her talk, I asked the first lady if she had received concerns from friends about Chiara opening up about her issues, especially as a high-profile political family.

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“It was my daughter’s decision,” McCray said. “It was not my decision. She did it herself. She recorded the video. She got more than a million views. She told her own story, and I just recounted it. But she is the one who made the decision.”

Panel member Dr. Byron Young, a child psychiatrist and supervising psychiatrist with the Mental Health Services Corps, said that McCray’s openness will help a lot of people seek help.

“I think it means a lot,” he said. “Everyone can see ‘we’re not the only ones going through this.’ It makes it less stigmatizing to know that people at the highest ranks still struggle with it.”