Mayor Bill de Blasio’s eyes watered and his face flushed. His voice faltered and, at one point as he struggled for the next sentence, his two college-aged children each placed a hand on his back to steady him.
The mayor was outlining the city’s wide-ranging, $850 million initiative to support and treat New Yorkers suffering from mental illness, and he grew emotional as he framed the effort to help with his own family’s struggles with depression.
His father returned from World War II wounded and depressed. He became an alcoholic, left the family when de Blasio was a child and took his life when the future mayor was 18. And the mayor’s 20-year-old daughter, Chiara, has spoken openly about her own battles with substance abuse and depression.
“I never got to know everything about my father,” de Blasio said Monday at an East Harlem news conference to announce the ThriveNYC plan. “But I do know he was a war hero, and I do know he showed tremendous leadership in battle.”
“He was strong and smart. But he could not do what Chiara did,” the mayor said, his voice halting. “She came forward and was honest about her challenges and we all got to work on trying to figure it out.”
De Blasio’s family has always been at the forefront of his political story. Chiara and her brother, Dante, appeared in ads during their father’s 2013 mayoral campaign. And the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray, was tasked with leading the city’s mental health reform, and she stressed Monday that part of the plan’s goal was to destigmatize mental illness.
“Mental health challenges are part of my family,” said McCray. “And they are likely part of yours too.”
Much of the new plan will roll out in early 2016. It will include training 250,000 New Yorkers in “mental health first aid” to better identify those in need, a public awareness campaign to encourage those battling depression to reach out, and money to hire clinicians to help in mental health clinics, substance abuse programs and homeless shelters.
The program was nearly a year in the works. City Hall gave it the full court press on Monday, lining up dozens of advocates to pack an East Harlem news conference and passing along supportive statements from Tipper Gore and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
Officials estimate that undiagnosed mental illness costs New York City’s economy $14 billion in productivity losses annually. According to a fact sheet distributed by City Hall, at least one in five adult New Yorkers have a mental health disorder in any given year.