By Jeffrey McNerney
With recent high-profile tragedies drawing headlines and attention, the issue of mental health, particularly among the unhoused, has been a major consideration for UWS residents and elected officials. Members of both groups came together to focus on the problem at Tuesday’s meeting of Community Board 7’s Health & Human Services Committee.
The virtual meeting chaired by Shelly Fine began with a discussion led by newly elected Council Member Erik Bottcher from Manhattan’s District 3. CM Bottcher, who made mental health issues the centerpiece of his campaign, said, “You don’t need to walk far down the streets of New York City to see people suffering from untreated mental illness….” Making it clear that the issue is a personal one for him, Bottcher shared his experience of being involuntarily committed after suicide attempts as a closeted teen and credited the intervention with saving his life.
Bottcher’s comments centered on the proposals he laid out in a recent editorial for the New York Daily News. These included reversing the closure of inpatient psychiatric beds and the creation of more medical-respite beds for those healthy enough to leave the hospital but requiring further treatment before returning to shelters or the street. He also emphasized the need for organizations like Fountain House in Hell’s Kitchen, which follow a “clubhouse model” of providing community for those with serious mental illness. “At a basic level,” said the Councilmember, “people need things to do all day.” Finally, he called for a revamp of discharge planning for the incarcerated. He called the current process “a joke” and told stories of former inmates he spoke with who hadn’t even been assigned a social worker.
Committee members were supportive of Bottcher’s proposals in the discussion that followed, and Chair Fine suggested drafting a resolution in support of Bottcher’s proposals, which was passed unanimously at the end of the meeting. Fine then introduced Dr. Prameet Singh, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Chair of the Department at Mount Sinai Morningside and West Hospitals, who contributed a perspective from the medical community. He noted that while he hasn’t seen a shortage of inpatient beds in the city specifically, he agreed the key is what happens after patients receive treatment and how to avoid a revolving door of admission and release.
Describing changes he’s seen in the last couple of years due to COVID, Dr. Singh said there have been both setbacks and opportunities. Many patients undergoing treatment became disconnected during the pandemic, and he’s also seen an increase in psychiatric emergency room visits for children and teens whose struggles may have gone unnoticed during the last two years. Bright spots include the relaxation of in-person requirements for social services and treatment, which, he said, led to an increase in patients with addictions and children being able to keep appointments.
After Dr. Singh’s discussion, the virtual floor opened to community members. Several Upper Westsiders spoke favorably of their experiences with the system when it worked, but said that strict requirements, lack of funding, and uncertainty led to a lack of confidence.
One resident asked what ordinary community members could do to help, which led Chair Fine to introduce Pastor James Payne who credited a national training program, called “Mental Health First Aid,” with helping people learn to observe changes in those they’re close to, offer a non-judgmental ear, and provide early intervention if necessary. He announced a partnership with the organization CASES which will be offering the training for free.
For further details, the full meeting is available here.