As society as a whole continues to grapple with widespread mental health stigmas, studies show that black communities face particular disparities in mental health care access and stigmas. New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray is working to combat barriers to mental health care and to raise awareness about mental illness. Her new initiative, Brothers Thrive, is a movement to support black men in New York City and beyond.
McCray's Brothers Thrive is a partnership and coalition aimed at raising awareness on stigmas surrounding mental illnesses – and with a mission to provide black men with safe spaces and access to health care services. She has partnered with mentoring organization, 100 Black Men, and historically black Greek-letter fraternities; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. and Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc.
In an interview with Blavity, McCray shared why she chose to partner with 100 Black men and historic black fraternal organizations.
"They've been around for a long time, they do good work and they have incredible networks," she said of the organizations. McCray added, "I’m not a brother, I love them, but I’m not a brother. It takes a brother to reach a brother in the most effective way. I’m very pleased they have taken this up. They all as individual organizations do so much good, but collectively they can do even more…"
Through Brothers Thrive, black male volunteer leaders will host a number of conversations and lend support to black men in communities in every borough of New York City. Brothers Thrive leaders will also encourage black men to be trained in Mental Health First Aid, a course that teaches individuals how to identify and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance abuse.
McCray told Blavity that although mental illness is a topic many people avoid, she's using her platform to promote mental health literacy head-on.
"This is very personal for me, I know from my life growing up that mental health is really critical to everything that we do," she said. "…We cannot live, love, learn, study – we can’t do anything without good mental health." She added that mental illness is a "hardship multiplier."
"We already have so many hardships, " she continued. "This one can be so devastating."
For black Americans, research has shown that unique stress from racism, everyday discrimination and injustices like deadly police shootings, only heighten psychological stress. But the barriers to promoting good mental health in black communities are multifaceted.
Aside from stigmas surrounding mental illness, black Americans are statistically less likely to seek mental health care services than their white counterparts for various possible reasons. Racism and discrimination in health care has not only been proven to be detrimental to a black person's health, it has caused many black patients to distrust health care providers completely. Not to mention in some cases when black people do seek mental health care, research has shown that some therapists display biases against black and low-income patients.
McCray said stigmas surrounding mental illness affects every community and is "widespread," and Brothers Thrive certainly aims to tackle those specific mental health care barriers impacting black men. It's an initiative McCray has been championing for years. In December 2017, the First Lady launched Sisters Thrive to promote mental health literacy in black communities by partnering with women-led organizations.
In 2015, McCray also launched ThriveNYC, and then later Cities Thrive, to create a system to support the mental well-being of people living in New York City, and in cities throughout nation, respectively. It's an initiative McCray was determined to launch based on her own experiences with her daughter, Chiara de Blasio, who has battled depression.
"…We spent almost a year talking to people listening, trying to understand what the experience is like for people," McCray told Blavity in part. "Back then I talked about my own personal experience with my daughter, and her being diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and not knowing where to turn."
Among its many missions, Brothers Thrive will support men in sharing their own personal mental health stories as a way to encourage them to then seek help, she explained. McCray added that making mental health a part of every health care conversation is essential.
"We’ve never had a coordinated mental health system in our country ever," she said. "When you think about that, it helps you realize the enormity of what we're doing here. Trying to connect the dots, trying to make sure everyone has access to resources [creates] a public conversation." She added, "This is revolutionary. This is a movement."