NEW YORK – Today, Council Member Farah Louis, Chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addictions led an oversight hearing that tackled the issue of access to mental health care in communities of color. During the nearly three-hour-long hearing, we heard testimony from the Administration, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams, service providers, advocates, and families who expressed their concerns and made recommendations on how to address the racial and economic disparities that millions of New Yorkers experience while seeking support during their hour of need. 

“We recognize the impact that decades of systemic racism have had on the mental health needs of New York City’s people of color, who have suffered through a health care system that is culturally insensitive, economically discriminatory, and geographically segregationist. The ramifications of decades of underinvestment in the healthcare needs of minority communities, including, but not limited to, black, brown, Asian, and Pacific Islanders, are still felt today in the interwoven and intermittent issues of criminalization and incarceration, unequal access to proper education, and the large scale destruction of families and social groups. We have a unique opportunity to tackle these issues of access, and we must act urgently to ensure that the damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic to the mental health of all New Yorkers does not worsen. If we do not prioritize the communities most vulnerable now, we might not get another opportunity to do so again, as unequal access to mental health care, continued social stigma against those suffering from mental illness, and the continued criminalization of mental illness in communities of color only continue to further the divide between the haves and the have nots,” said Council Member Farah N. Louis, Chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addictions.

In January of this year, the Mayor’s Office released a list of twenty-seven, then later expanded to thirty-three, underserved neighborhoods that New York City would prioritize under their NYC Vaccine for All Campaign. In a March 2021 press release, the Mayor’s Office further announced the return of the Communities Thriveinitiative, under the direction of the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC, which further prioritizes the thirty-three communities targeted by the NYC Vaccine for All Campaign for additional resources to expand the availability of mental health and hygiene resources. 

We see a clear correlation between poverty and the likeliness of New Yorkers to suffer from mental health issues, and with people of color making up a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty level, these communities, therefore, suffer the most from psychological distress. With communities of color being far more likely to be under-or uninsured than their white counterparts, their access to affordable health care is further diminished. For those that do have access to insurance, such as those with Medicare, are likely to be located in a “mental health desert,” which is an area that possesses too few mental health providers to properly cover the mental health needs of its residents. 

This is compounded by the composition and makeup of America’s mental health professionals, who are overwhelmingly white, with over 86 percent of all psychologists in the United Stated being white, while fewer than 15 percent being from other racial and ethnic groups. This creates a cultural and racial divide between mental health care providers and their patients, further influencing the quality, quantity, and effectiveness of the care available.

Those on state Medicaid run into problems related to insurance rates, which are so low that private practice physicians are effectively out of their reach, as providers are far less likely to accept Medicaid plans, with more than a quarter of providers excluding Medicaid, while ballooning health care costs make self-funding impossible. 

Before we can make strides in reversing the damage such negligence has caused on our communities, we must first acknowledge and understand the areas in which the healthcare system has failed our brothers and sisters, and address these issues to ensure that our city can THRIVE. While being a person of color does not make you more susceptible to mental health issues, the lack of access to critical health and mental hygiene resources does make these communities more vulnerable to the ramifications of untreated mental health issues. 

This is why we must provide culturally sensitive, affordable, and sustainable mental health care within communities of color, to ensure that individuals are not plagued by treatable and manageable mental illness. 

In addition, we must tackle the issue of representation in the mental health workforce, particularly in relation to its composition and availability in communities of color. We must create sustained and effective educational and outreach programs to increase participation in educational and training programs while forgiving federal student loans and increasing pay parity for mental health workers, all to incentivize people of color to engage with the field. In particular, this would help address the cultural and language barriers that many people of color face when they attempt to get the help they need, creating a more culturally sensitive mental health care system.

“To address the increased need for crisis response services for people of color and those living in poverty, Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center called on the city to enhance funding to community-based organizations that have an established history serving marginalized populations, especially those programs that offer completely confidential services that guarantee trust and safety,” said Alan Ross, Executive Director, The Samaritans of New York.

“Today the New York City Council Virtual Meeting on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction met to discuss much-needed services for black and brown communities, with an emphasis on the need for a culturally competent and equitable mental health system. We must partner with community-based organizations (CBOs) to promote and provide education to the community through programming, outreach, and educational support efforts. The Administration must address the severely mentally ill population that, despite having intensive services such as mobile crisis teams, have little access to truly effective treatment. There is a need for a more robust, city-wide mental health program, one which provides services to those in need, instead of one focused on increasing police presence,” said Arron Muller, LCSW.

We must build a truly equitable mental health care system that addresses these shortcomings, and provides access to ALL New Yorkers, not just those fortunate enough to be born into a particular community. The Administration must relaunch the Brothers Thrive and Sisters Thrive initiative, which has received critical and public acclaim, and we must further explore how we can tackle the issue of mental health in our communities of color. 

###