People in Mental Health Throes Need Immediate Help

by Rev Patrick O'Connor for the New York Daily News

May 7, 2023


The killing of Jordan Neely on the subway highlights the problem of people with mental health challenges being unable to get help from the government. Will anything change?

I’m a pastor and leader in Queens Power/Metro IAF who has met with the governor several times to press her administration to create crisis stabilization centers. These centers, also called diversion units, are staffed and equipped to provide immediate assistance to someone in the throes of a mental health episode. We have also spoken with high-ranking NYPD personnel about the same need, and they expressed strong support for the idea.

Somehow, although no one is against this much-needed improvement, thus far, only two operate in the entire city and none in Brooklyn or Queens, with their combined population of nearly 5 million. When the government considers issues like these, it seems to get lost in a blizzard of policy papers, budget negotiations, personality clashes, and political crosscurrents.

But I’m a working pastor committed to serving a congregation in Jamaica, Queens, and I don’t have that luxury.

Neither do my staff members. This reality came home again three weeks ago when the security guard at my church was stabbed in the chest with no warning. He bled profusely but was saved by prompt volunteers, NYPD, EMTs, and medical professionals. The assailant, who was experiencing a mental health crisis, refused to put his weapon down when police arrived and was shot. Thankfully, he will survive.

Every day that the powers that be in Albany and City Hall refuse to build the network of stabilization and care centers so desperately needed in our city is another day of exposure to life-threatening incidents like suicide, overdose, and other violence.

When we met with the governor in February, she and her staff said they would announce a new set of crisis stabilization centers in the city “soon.” When we pressed them to tell us what “soon” meant, they refused to be specific. When we described our interest in such centers to the NYPD, top brass said that they planned to take it up with City Hall because they believed that this important development could improve the lives of all New Yorkers, including first responders. That was five weeks ago. We haven’t heard a peep from either party since.

“Soon” wasn’t soon enough for Jordan Neely. It wasn’t soon enough for the security guard who nearly lost his life protecting my staff members. It wasn’t soon enough for the gentleman with the knife, who clearly needs intensive care and treatment. It wasn’t soon enough for my staff members and the organizers of Queens Power, who comforted my security guard as he lay bleeding and then witnessed the confrontation with the police. And it wasn’t soon enough for those police officers, facing yet again an individual who obviously needed help they cannot provide long before this day arrived.

Miami Dade County and San Antonio have been pioneering full-spectrum crisis stabilization and care for two decades. Since 2017, Dutchess County, New York, has been home to a Crisis Stabilization Center, which now includes forensic mobile crisis response teams and peer-led respite centers. They serve more than 5,000 people a year from eight counties and have diverted 25,000 days of psychiatric hospitalization. Surely we can do the same here.

And while the new state budget includes $1 billion dedicated to expanded mental health care and treatment, it is still not clear if crisis stabilization units are part of that package. You would think that with that kind of money, on top of the federal money already given to the state for mental health priorities during COVID, that centers could be placed in every borough. Without them, as we have written in these pages in the past, emergency rooms and jails will remain the default destinations when police are called to a home or a street where a person struggling with mental illness is considered a threat.

“It’s getting late early,” as the great philosopher Yogi Berra once said. As the governor and mayor dither, the city slowly burns; and I, like so many citizens of this great city and state, do a slow burn. Last month, their lack of leadership and the lack of urgency at almost all levels of government exposed my staff and a person profoundly troubled to nearly fatal harm. Politicians should forget the expressions of concern and their mad dashes to emergency rooms. Create and staff the crisis stabilization centers that will help make New York a safer and more humane city again.

Jordan Neely is dead. Let him be the last.

O’Connor is the co-chair of Queens Power, a citizens’ power organization affiliated with Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.

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