'I'm sorry, but the doctor isn't taking new patients right now."
It took me a moment to grasp what the receptionist was telling me. After hours of internet research, innumerable phone calls, and frustrating discussions with some well-meaning but distant professionals, the psychiatrist we had identified as a good fit for Chiara wouldn't be able to help us.
I hung up the phone and put my head down on the table. My first impulse was to leave it there until the world started making sense again, but there was no time for that. My daughter needed help.
Our search had begun weeks earlier, when Chiara, then 18 years old, bravely revealed to Bill and me that she was suffering from anxiety, depression, and addiction.
I felt everything you'd expect a mother to feel: love, sadness, fear and a great deal of uncertainty. Our child was in terrible pain, but because it originated in her brain and not another part of her body, there wasn't an established series of steps to follow. We had to trust the recommendations of people we didn't really know and make some major decisions on our own.
Our family got lucky. We eventually found the right doctors and program for Chiara, and I'm happy to report that she is kicking butt at recovery.
But even after our crisis ended, I couldn't forget how scared and helpless I felt during those first frantic weeks. So I continued my research, wanting to understand how other people manage in these situations, especially those who don't have the same advantages as us.
The more I learned, the harder it was to avoid a troubling conclusion: Our mental health system is broken — and as a result, we are facing a national mental health crisis.
Just look at the numbers. All told, 25% of American adults — one in four — deal with mental illness in a given year. That means it's pretty much impossible to go through life without you or someone you love being touched by mental illness.
Tragically, our system doesn't even begin to address the problem. A remarkable 61% of New York State adults who need mental health services aren't getting them. And it's not just adults who are suffering — 35% of New York's children also go without the mental health services they need.
The situation is even worse for people of color and those who are living in poverty. Here in New York City, research by our Health Department indicates that African Americans experiencing serious psychological distress are significantly less likely than their white counterparts to have received treatment in the past year — 30% compared to 48%. And numerous studies have found that the stresses of low economic status are often a catalyst for poor mental health.
The first step to solving the crisis is to simply acknowledge that it exists. We must start a real public conversation about mental illness, and we must start connecting people to appropriate services. That is how we will shatter the stigma.
Over the next few months, I will visit New Yorkers in all five boroughs to hear some of the stories behind the troubling statistics. I will meet with teenagers, mothers, people without a home, people in jail, senior citizens and veterans. I am also going to sit down with service providers and advocates. From them, I will learn what is working — and what needs fixing.
The stories I hear will inform the plan the de Blasio administration is developing to build a more inclusive mental health system. This effort will be led by the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, which I oversee as chair; the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the Fund for Public Health.
When I say a "more inclusive" system, I mean one that meets — and treats — people where they live. That addresses the most pervasive and burdensome conditions. That promotes the most effective treatments. That features caregivers who understand the language and culture of the people they serve.
The good news is that the building blocks of this system already exist. I'm thinking about the family resource center that I recently visited in the Bronx, where advocates with experience raising a child with special needs are sharing that hard-won knowledge with their neighbors.
I'm also thinking about all the public servants I've met, from line staff to commissioners, who are convinced that there has never been a better time than now to fix a problem that has been building for generations.
And I'm thinking about everyone who helped Chiara regain her equilibrium. She has built a support network that has grown to include not just doctors and therapists, but an entire community of people helping each other walk the long and winding path toward recovery. With their help, Chiara is stronger than ever.
As I said, our family was lucky. But luck should have nothing to do with it. Together, we can create a mental health system that meets the needs of all New Yorkers.
McCray, an activist and writer, is the First Lady of New York City.