We Must Address New York City’s Mental Health Crisis

In September 1958, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed with a seven-inch steel letter opener. He had been autographing copies of his first book in Blumstein’s department store in Harlem. The woman who stabbed him was named Izola Ware Curry.

When Dr. King found out she was schizophrenic, he harbored no ill will toward her, saying instead, “I know that we want her to receive the necessary treatment so that she may become a constructive citizen in an integrated society where a disorganized personality need not become a menace to any man.”

Dated description aside, King recognized that people in crisis need mental health care to be healthy and safe. The many Izola Ware Currys in New York today are far more likely to find themselves in jail, or relegated to street corners and subway stations, than they are to receive comprehensive treatment. This disconnect can set the stage for people with mental illness to be both victims and perpetrators of real violence.

Mental illness isn’t a crime, and jail isn’t the answer for those experiencing it. We must meet the needs of people in crisis with treatment and support. In order to do so, we need more funding.

Lawmakers in Albany right now are in the final stages of negotiating our state budget. Gov. Kathy Hochul and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly must make good on their earlier support for significant investments in mental health care — especially for New Yorkers who have been struggling, posing potential dangers to themselves and others. Doing so now can reduce assaults in our city by people experiencing mental health crises. They can also ensure that when those people do commit crimes, they are held accountable in a manner that reduces recidivism.

Around half of people in New York City jails — some 3,000 men and women — have been diagnosed with some degree of mental illness. On any given day, hundreds await evaluations or beds at dwindling and overwhelmed state psychiatric hospitals. On a typical day at Manhattan Criminal Court, you’ll witness the churn of people struggling with mental illness, caught up in a cycle of recidivism and incarceration instead of receiving the therapy, medication and other services that would help them lead healthy, productive lives.

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