If Andrew Yang means what he said about the mentally ill, he shouldn’t be New York’s mayor

On Wednesday, during the New York Democratic mayoral debate, the thirteen candidates were asked how they would address mental health and homelessness in the city. May Wiley discussed the struggles of a formerly homeless man, Shams DaBaron. Scott Stringer talked about building tens of thousands of “affordable housing” units.

But it was the comments made by entrepreneur-turned-wannabe-politician (because what could go wrong with a businessman running for office?) Andrew Yang that stood out — for all the wrong reasons.

“Mentally ill homeless men are changing the character of our neighbors,” Yang began, before claiming one of his wife’s friends was punched in the face by a “mentally ill” man. “This is happening in New York City and we’re not talking enough about it. Families are leaving as a result. In East Harlem, the neighborhood has been changed. The Upper West Side, the neighborhood has been changed. We owe our people and our families better than this.”

Yang went on to lament about the “hundreds of mentally ill people we all see around us every day on the streets and the subways,” before promising that he would “rebuild the stock of psych beds in our city.”

The mayoral contender ended his comments by declaring that, yes, people with mental health issues have rights, but “you know who else has rights? We do: the people and families of the city. We have the right to walk the street and not fear for our safety because a mentally ill person is going to lash out at us.”

Those who have mental health issues are the people and families of the city. We live in East Harlem and the Upper West Side. We take our children to school, deliver New Yorkers their food, manage companies, offer childcare, and stand up small businesses. To speak of the mentally ill as if we’re subhuman — a scourge on the city instead of one of the many facets that make New York City great — is disqualifying at best, and no doubt dangerous to those of us who live with mental illness.

Perhaps Yang, who left New York City during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, has spent too much time in his four-bedroom second home in New Paltz to know that when he says “the people and families of the city,” that includes the more than 1 in 5 New Yorkers who have symptoms of a mental health disorder, and the 1 in 10 New York adults and children who experience mental health challenges that end up impacting their work, family, and school life.

The families of New York City are cared for by women who are at risk of developing postpartum depression, anxiety, and other perinatal mood disorders. One in 5 New York moms experience postpartum depression. And we’re caring for children with mental health issues — 1 in 5 New York children have an emotional, behavioral, or developmental condition. In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for kids between the ages of 15 and 19.

Maybe Yang was simply too removed from what at one time was the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic to acknowledge that the entire city — from essential workers to the elderly, children forced to pivot to virtual learning to mothers pushed out of the workforce — is collectively reeling from more than a year of immense trauma. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were over 17,330 calls to the city’s 311 system related to mental health issues — 85 times more than the same time period in 2019.

“How can you possibly have an ‘us vs. them’ mentality when nearly everyone knows, loves, or is a ‘them’?” Dr Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Washington University in St Louis, said. “Adding to the stigma only adds to unmet needs because people fear getting care or are fearful of what people might think. We have enough problems with care due to cost and accessibility; we don’t need more problems because of rhetoric that harms.”

Perhaps Yang simply needs to educate himself on not only the number of people in the United States who have at least one mental health issue (51.5 million in 2019, sir), but the facts about people with mental illness in general. For starters, the idea that people with mental health issues are more likely to commit acts of violence is patently false — the opposite is true: people with a “major mental illness” are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime. One 2005 study of mental health patients found that 31 percent experienced physical assault, 8 percent experienced sexual assault, and 63 percent witnessed a traumatic event or events within the mental healthcare system.

But sure, more “psych beds” are the answer.

Maybe Yang just needs to think back on the previous comments he made about the first responders and frontline healthcare workers who made unfathomable sacrifices in their effort to save lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Thank you to all of the healthcare workers who are saving lives and demonstrating courage and selflessness every single day!” Yang tweeted on January 24, 2021.Those same healthcare workers are now battling the mental health ramifications of Covid; the devastation of bearing witness to a massive loss of life; the lasting effects of stress, overwhelm, and burnout. A 2021 national survey found that 3 in 10 frontline healthcare workers sought mental health care or medication as a result of the pandemic. Among those under 30, 75 percent said the pandemic had a “negative impact on their mental health.” Sixteen percent said the pandemic-related worry and stress led to an increase in alcoholic or drug use.

Are these people “changing our neighborhoods”? Are these people driving out families and posing a threat? Or has Yang demonstrated, again, that he is ill-equipped to be New York City’s next mayor?

“You can’t sit here and call people who run towards fighting a pandemic heroes, and then at the same time say there is something wrong with them for having mental health effects as a result,” Gold said. “I see healthcare workers in my clinic. Healthcare workers who either had their preexisting mental health condition worsened, or have new onset mental health issues as a result of Covid-19.”

“How can they be both heroes and people who are not human?” she continued. “You tell me.”

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