Improving ThriveNYC for Veterans & Families

190227_MolikThriveNYC_400.jpgOn February 27, 2019, Director of Policy and Legislative Advocacy Sam Molik testified before the NYC Council's Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities & Addiction in an oversight hearing on the first three years of the ThriveNYC program addressing mental health for New Yorkers:

Good afternoon and thank you to the Committee Chair for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Samuel Molik and I am the Director of Policy and Legislative Advocacy for the NYC Veterans Alliance, a member-driven, grassroots policy advocacy and community building organization that advances veterans and their families as civic leaders.

I would like to start by applauding the ambitious approaches of ThriveNYC in addressing mental health in our city, and the inclusion of veterans and their family members as a key underserved population requiring programmatic focus to close gaps in care. ThriveNYC is a needed initiative, and we are optimistic about its potential for tremendous positive impact on the veterans community as well as New York City as a whole. Mental health must be an ongoing topic of education and conversation in all communities, and it is on all of us to make routine mental healthcare just as high a health priority as exercise and good nutrition, and to build strong bonds of support and compassion within our communities.

Mental healthcare is a top concern of our membership, especially related to the worst possible outcome for those who have been failed by our culture of stigma and barriers to mental healthcare—veteran suicide. Last year the US Department of Veterans Affairs issued its latest statistics on known veteran suicides, revealing that 20 veterans each day across the nation are dying by suicide—a rate more than twice the rate of our civilian counterparts. Rates for younger veterans and women veterans dying by suicide are spiking, while generations of aging veterans continue to make up the largest population in sheer numbers dying by suicide.[1] In New York, rates of suicide are overall lower than the rest of the country, yet the statistics remain alarming—veterans in our state are still dying by suicide at nearly twice the rate of our civilian counterparts.[2] Veteran suicide is a national crisis, and also a local crisis. We urge this committee to ensure that ThriveNYC continues to improve and refine targeted programs and outcomes to keep our city’s veterans alive and thriving.

Back in 2015, we were proud to work with Commissioner Sutton and her team on our community’s recommendations to integrate the city’s 3-1-1 service with the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line to provide veteran-specific support to any New Yorker expressing concerns about a veteran in danger of self-harm.[3] As this is a critical tool in the prevention of veteran suicide, we urge ThriveNYC and this committee to ensure that reporting out of metrics is made publicly available.

We have hosted a day-long Mental Health First Aid Training provided by ThriveNYC, certifying 20 veterans, family members, and people who work with veterans on this training. We appreciate that veteran-specific content is included in this off-the-shelf curriculum, and that veterans are employed as trainers for the program. Yet we received feedback from participants that the curriculum remined at a loss for specific places to refer veterans and their caregivers for preventive care. It is also unclear on what takes place when someone calls the city’s 9-1-1 system to intervene for a veteran in crisis—would there be responders with veteran-specific competencies? Would they be met by law enforcement, or medical providers? Mental Health First Aid Training would be vastly improved by offering information specific to how our city’s agencies and medical community can prevent and treat the conditions discussed in the curriculum.

We have also been proud to host a discussion event on the city’s response to the opioid crisis—another crisis disproportionately impacting veterans—that included certifying more than 40 event attendees on Narcan kits they were able to take home with them because of ThriveNYC’s investment to make this free and available to save lives. If any other veterans organization wishes to host this kind of training, we would be glad to share what we did so it can be replicated. We further recommend more robust direct outreach by ThriveNYC to veterans and community organizations so they know this is available. We also recommend this as a possible addition to Mental Health First Aid Training.

We applaud ThriveNYC’s initiative to reach veterans and their family members and broach important subjects of mental health and suicide prevention through arts-based cultural events. The NYC veterans community includes robust programs that have done tremendous work toward training veterans in the arts, literature, and performance, including a growing community of working actors and performers. A priority within the vast majority of these programs is broaching mental health subjects and building a vibrant and supportive community. The first iteration of this “C1” initiative has included Theater of War, an innovative program presenting military-themed ancient Greek tragedy and audience discussions to areas across the city—we have discussed with DVS that this program that does not hire or employ veteran artists is a missed opportunity to engage with the already-robust community efforts at work.[4] We recommend that going forward ThriveNYC seek to engage with and support existing arts and culture programs and organizations already at work within the NYC veterans community to maximize connectedness, resources, and overall positive impact of this important initiative.

Back in 2015, we applauded the inclusion of peer social support coordinators as part of the staffing of DVS. We have been pleased to watch the growth and outreach of these coordinators that now make up a consistent, welcoming, and helpful presence at numerous outreach events, including our own, held in the veterans community across the city. These coordinators are important connective tissue between veterans and the city services available to them. We recommend further development of these important ambassadors to the veterans community, to include robust connections with the full spectrum of city services available to support veterans and families, from tax exemptions to city employment to business development programs, and more. This should be fully integrated and aligned with the city’s VetConnectNYC network, mirroring in-person connections with the digital referral network. We further recommend refined reporting metrics of their meaningful outreach, differentiating referrals from brochures distributed, and so on.

Also back in 2015, we applauded the inclusion of the $1 million Veteran Mental Health Holistic Treatment Fund in the ThriveNYC Roadmap—and we understand that philanthropic funds have been raised toward making alternative treatment modalities available to veterans and their families. Yet it remains unclear where these funds are being used under this city program. We urge ThriveNYC and this committee to make information about this fund transparent and accessible to the veterans community, which includes a number of veteran-led organizations offering modalities that would welcome the opportunity to place a bid in any public RFP.

We hope that future ThriveNYC reporting includes the progress, broken out by population subset, toward securing 15,000 supportive housing units for veterans & families and other vulnerable New Yorkers, as promised in the Roadmap. Stable housing is a key component of addressing mental health needs, and information on the progress toward this ambitious and critical initiative for veterans and families should be made public as well.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. Pending your questions, this concludes my testimony.