How the First Lady of NYC is fighting stigma against mental illness

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

When Chirlane McCray became the First Lady of New York City, she promised to make a difference in people’s lives in the most personal of ways.

After months of research, planning and listening tours, she has launched a game-changing 24-hour support line to reach more people in-need.

Now people can call, text or chat live with a counselor who can guide them to support, for free.

–Why New York City’s first lady Chirlane McCray is inspiring

“It’s 2016 but there’s still a huge stigma around mental illness,” McCray told theGrio. “People don’t feel comfortable talking about it. They don’t have the language to talk about it. We are quite revolutionary in providing a service like this.”

For McCray, the issue of mental health is a personal one.  McCray’s daughter Chiara struggled for a long time with substance abuse and depression, challenges she has since sought treatment for and spoke publicly about.

McCray, who also has a son (Dante), says it was hard to know what to do support her child; and that no one is immune to suffering from mental illness.

“One of the problems with mental health is that people feel that they shouldn’t have to see someone,” says McCray. “They have all these things going for themselves, they shouldn’t complain and they shouldn’t have to struggle with their emotions. People shouldn’t feel reluctant to reach out.”

–A Day in the Life: Chirlane McCray, First Lady of New York City

For people of color, the disadvantages of racism and access can compound issues of mental illness.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African-Americans were 10 percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic whites, yet fewer African-American adults over 18 received mental health treatment or counseling.

“The fact that we don’t have a lot of mental health professionals that look like us, that is a challenge for people who want or need someone who understands the culture we come from,” says McCray.

In addition to the 24-hour hotline, McCray is building a movement of city leaders to share strategies and best practices for improving mental health support across the country.  The group will convene at the CitiesThrive conference in NYC this month.

–NYC mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, to lobby Albany

McCray is hoping people will be inspired to get the help they need, through seeing her own testimony as well.

“To be able to take this subject, which has caused me and many people so much personal pain and turn it into something that will give back life and quality of life to so many people, is just a blessing,” says McCray.

“I’m going to do whatever I can do to get it out there.”