Get serious on mental illness: The city needs pragmatic plans that address the problem in all its complexity

Daily News Editorial Board, New York Daily News
·2 min read

A rash of awful unprovoked attacks by people with histories of serious mental illness, and a string of tragic deaths at the hands of police of people experiencing emotional disturbances, has awakened New Yorkers to the shambolic state of our mental health system. The awakening is welcome, but elected officials are nowhere close to designing pragmatic solutions to the problem.

A pilot program Mayor de Blasio announced last year to start sending EMTs and social workers to respond to calls about people experiencing emotional disturbances, is taking longer than anticipated to launch, as the city struggles to hire people willing to do what might be very dangerous, difficult work. If a two-neighborhood program can’t get off the ground, the prognosis is grim for transforming the approach citywide.

Meanwhile, City Council legislation would limit NYPD’s role responding to mental health emergencies, defining in statute what constitutes a “mental health emergency” as opposed to a “public safety emergency.”

That’s glib. In the real world, mental health emergency can quickly become a public safety problem. And defining when police should be involved in addressing mental health crises leaves unanswered what should happen after the social worker, EMT or cop arrives. After years of federal, state and local dismantling of mental health treatment facilities, we’re left with a palimpsest of bad options. Poor New Yorkers end up cycling through homeless shelters and jails and emergency room beds.

Meanwhile, vital tools like Kendra’s Law, which enables courts to order people to get psychiatric treatment when it can be proven they pose a danger to themselves and others, are chronically underutilized, thanks to civil liberties concerns aired by some of the same people who now demand sweeping change. A 2016 state mental health needs assessment shows NYC had the highest rates statewide of hospital admissions and ER visits for schizophrenia, yet only 40% of people hospitalized for mental health problems here got follow-up treatment in the week post-hospitalization.

Rolling out grand plans to overhaul responses for people in mental health crisis without overhauling the underlying system sounds, to us, politically schizophrenic.