Rebranded mental health agency needs leader, says critics

Rebranded mental health agency needs leader, says critics

A bloody mass shooting on a packed Brooklyn subway train by an apparently deranged man is raising concerns over whether a rebrand of the embattled de Blasio-era “ThriveNYC” initiative has the leadership to handle the city’s growing mental health crisis.

In videos posted on social media, alleged subway terrorist Frank James claimed he had a diagnosed mental illness and railed against what he called the “horror show” of the city’s mental health services.

“Mr. Mayor, I’m a victim of your mental health program,” James said in one lengthy clip.

Critics say the sadistic straphanger attack, which unfolded on the N Train Tuesday and left 10 shot and another 19 hurt, must serve as a wake-up call for the city. They also say that after more than three months on the job, Mayor Eric Adams must finally select someone to head the new Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

During his final months in office, Mayor de Blasio created the OCMH to permanently replace ThriveNYC, which burned through roughly $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds over six years and was widely criticized for failing to produce measurable results for countless mentally ill New Yorkers. Then-ThriveNYC director Susan Herman briefly stood on to head the rebranded office but resigned in December.

Homeless Outreach personnel engage with a person sleeping on a bench in the Manhattan subway system, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022, in New York. New York's latest plan to tackle both crime and homelessness in subways was rolling into action Monday after police logged more than a half-dozen attacks in trains and stations over the holiday weekend.
Homeless Outreach personnel engage with homeless people and try to bring them into shelters.
AP/John Minchillo

The OCMH is currently headed by co-acting directors Jason Hansman and Tina Chiu, both de Blasio administration holdovers. City officials declined to say when a permanent director would be appointed.

City Councilman Robert Holden (D-Queens), a longtime ThriveNYC critic, said whoever is put in charge of OCMH must focus on protecting New Yorkers from the dangerous mentally ill by relying more on Kendra’s Law, which allows judges to order “assisted outpatient treatment.”

“A potentially violent person suffering from severe mental illness isn’t going to call a hotline and ask for help,” Holden said.

NYC subway crackdown in effect.
In a video posted to social media, Brooklyn subway shooting suspect Frank James said, “Mr. Mayor, I’m a victim of your mental health program.”
Paul Martinka

The OCMH oversees more than 20 programs and a $281.5 million budget, which predominantly covers mental health services provided by the Health Department and other city agencies. It’s a similar setup to Thrive, which last fiscal year oversaw $226.7 million in city spending.

OCMH’s budget is slated to drop to $210.6 million for the new fiscal year beginning July 1, records show.

Like Thrive, OCMH operates with a staff that fluctuates at around two dozen.

Homeless Outreach personnel walk along a train platform in the Manhattan subway system, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022, in New York. New York's latest plan to tackle both crime and homelessness in subways was rolling into action Monday after police logged more than a half-dozen attacks in trains and stations over the holiday weekend.
A permanent director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health has not yet been appointed.
AP/John Minchillo

Councilwoman Linda Lee — who heads the committee on mental health, disabilities and addictions – said it’s “too early” to criticize OCMH but believes Adams has a “huge opportunity” to improve mental health services by hiring the right director.

“I think the reason why we haven’t seen much change is because there’s no leader right now — no director,” said the Queens Democrat, a former social worker who previously ran a nonprofit that assisted the mentally ill.

The Tuesday morning rush-hour shooting on the N train in Sunset Park is just the latest in a string of incidents involving the mentally ill in the transit system. Three months ago, a homeless man with a long history of mental illness shoved Michelle Go, 40, to her death in front of an oncoming subway train in Times Square, police said.

A homeless outreach program worker at the BDFM 34th street station in Manhattan.
The OCMH oversees more than 20 programs and a $281.5 million budget.
Stephen Yang

Under Adams, the OCMH has increased some of the city’s mental health services and more are in the works, including an expansion of multi-agency Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division — known as “B-HEARD” — which dispatches teams of EMTs and social workers in response to 911 calls about non-violent, emotionally disturbed people. 

Former Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, a pastor, was initially a top contender to run the OCMH for Adams but was dropped from consideration after intense pushback from the LGBTQ community over past anti-gay remarks that he recently apologized for.

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