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NYC's first lady to lead mental health effort

Chirlane McCray attends the P2PH Policy to Practice

Chirlane McCray attends the P2PH Policy to Practice Conference and speaks from a personal perspective about the need to expand mental health service in NYC on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. Credit: Linda Rosier

New York City's first lady says family struggles with mental illness have inspired her to lead a campaign to create "a more inclusive mental-health system" citywide.

Addressing the "From Punishment to Public Health" conference Wednesday in Brooklyn, Chirlane McCray recounted her parents' "periods of intense sadness" during her childhood, which she later recognized as "depression," and her 20-year-old daughter's more recent battle with depression, anxiety and drug addiction "right beneath our nose."

"My way of thinking about all this changed dramatically when our daughter, Chiara, revealed to us that she was struggling," McCray said. "I felt everything you'd expect a mother to feel: Love first and foremost. But also fear, and a great deal of uncertainty. I can't tell you what a shock it was."

McCray, the wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio, said a task force would release a "road map" this summer about how to reach people who go without needed treatment, by better coordinating efforts by government agencies, mental health care workers and other groups.

McCray indicated in a Newsday interview earlier this month that she planned to raise her public profile.

One aim of her new effort is to destigmatize mental illness.

"We ignore it. We sweep it under the rug. We cross the street," McCray said. She added: "Who doesn't have periods of depression, anxiety." McCray plans to use her position as head of the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, a nonprofit entity that raises private cash for projects, to help pay for whatever the "road map" recommends.

Chiara de Blasio, a college student in California, has become a spokeswoman for confronting mental illness and substance abuse.

The "edgy young activist," as McCray described her, appeared in a revelatory video on YouTube in December 2013 that has been viewed more than 1 million times. She accepted an award in May from the federal government for serving as an example for other struggling young people.

McCray said "our family is lucky," but "it was really hard for us to get our daughter appropriate help."

"So you can imagine what it must be like for the 46 percent of New Yorkers living at or near the poverty line," she said. "What is it like for a woman who speaks only Spanish? What is it like for an African-American father living in Brownsville? A grandmother raising her grandchild? Or someone who was formerly incarcerated?"

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