ALBANY — A summit was held this past week in Albany focusing on mental health and addressing race-based inequities in the system.
The summit held at the Crowne Plaza Desmond on Wednesday was organized by the state Office of Mental Health to bring attention to inequities and social determinants that ultimately create unequal access to quality health care and treatment. OMH’s Chief Diversity Officer Matthew Knutson said the goal of the summit is to create a public policy plan to address these barriers.
“A list of recommendations are being collected from these meetings that’s going to then actually concretely influence the work of an interagency task force that will then report [to the governor’s office,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic raised awareness about the lack of access to affordable and quality health care for some Americans, particularly in poor and minority communities.
President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order in January 2021 to create a similar task force on the federal level to identify and eliminate health and social disparities that have led to higher rates of exposure, illness, hospitalization and death related to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 also brought on a rise in hate crimes. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there were 10,530 incidents of hate crimes nationally in 2021, the latest year data is been made available. Of that number, 6,643 incidents involved race or ethnicity and 1,707 involved sexual orientation. Gov. Kathy Hochul last year created a new Hate and Bias Prevention Unit through the state Division of Human Rights.
The state also allocated $1 billion in this year’s state budget for mental health services.
Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado, who identifies as Afro-Latino, said during the summit that the hate and fear mongering being seen lately is leading to a “profound level of insensitivity to the welfare and the mental health of our brothers and sisters.”
“We’re seeing this in a number of ways, where folks seem incapable of being able to respond with compassion when confronted by a mental health crisis,” Delgado said. “We are investing $1 billion in this area and I come here today to tell you that investment must be targeted. It must reflect the historical realities that black and brown communities have been forced to endure.”
Dr. Crystal Lewis moderated the first panel at the summit. Lewis is the head of the division of social solutions and services research at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Rockland County. She spoke about the history of medicine in this country and the structural racism that still exists in it today.
“We all know that poverty drives everything. We can talk about housing, we can talk about incarceration, all these things, but when it comes down to the root it’s poverty. And poverty looks different when it comes to black Americans and other minoritized communities,” she said. “And these numerous federal, state and local laws that in part were purposely constructed racialized systems that define structural racism and its role as the primary social determinant of health and well being.”
Antoine Craigwell is president and CEO of DBGM, Inc., a non-profit that raises awareness about mental health issues for Black gay men. During the first panel, he used the recent death of Jordan Neely as an example of systemic failures in the mental health system. Neely was a 30-year-old man with mental health issues that was choked to death last month on a New York City subway.
“As the reports came out, it showed us that Jordan was failed at every single level in mental health care,” he said. “I invoke Jordan Neely because Jordan Neely is a symptom and the tip of the iceberg of this broken mental health care system in New York State.”