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One Brooklyn community fears safety amidst a lack of mental health resources

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As mental health care shortages plague communities across the country, many Americans face a difficult question. In the rare cases when someone with untreated mental illness acts violently, what's the best way to keep both the person and the community safe? The debate has fiercely divided one New York City neighborhood in Brooklyn. Samantha Max of member station WNYC reports.

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: Francoise Olivas was walking her daughter home from school with a group of parents one day when they spotted a man who has been charged many times with assaulting, harassing and groping people in her neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She says he was coming toward them on the street.

FRANCOISE OLIVAS: So we all ran against the light to get to the other side.

MAX: Olivas says things escalated when the man approached a cyclist who was riding by and straddled her bike.

OLIVAS: So the cyclist ran a red light.

MAX: The biker rode away, but the parents and their kids were shaken up. According to city officials, the man has gone to jail and psychiatric hospitals dozens of times. Court records show he's also started and stopped treatment for alcoholism. And like half of the people in New York City jails, he has mental illness. Research shows that a tiny fraction of people with serious mental illness commit acts of violence and are actually more likely to be victims. And even when they do, experts say, other factors besides their diagnosis typically drive them to commit those crimes. But several recent high-profile incidents have put some people on edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #1: We have new information tonight in the tragic death of a woman shoved in front of a moving train at the Times Square subway station.

MAX: In January 2022, a man with schizophrenia pushed Michelle Go onto the Times Square subway tracks during rush hour, killing her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER #2: ...Has been found psychologically unfit to stand trial.

MAX: People with mental illness have also been harmed themselves. Earlier this year in New York City, a subway rider fatally choked Jordan Neely, an unhoused man who he said was acting aggressively toward others on the train. The incident sparked calls for better mental health care.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Justice for...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Jordan Neely.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Justice for...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Jordan Neely.

MAX: Every state has some sort of law that allows for emergency psychiatric evaluations and involuntary hospitalizations. Many cities, from Eugene, Ore., to Nashville, Tenn., also have programs to send clinicians to some mental health calls. But these programs and policies have only scratched the surface.

HANNAH WESOLOWSKI: The biggest challenge that we see is just the availability of care.

MAX: Hannah Wesolowski is the chief advocacy officer for the National Association of Mental Illness (ph).

WESOLOWSKI: There's long waitlists for mental health providers. There is often inability to get care in an insurance network. If somebody needs inpatient care, which is not the first stop but is the right type of care for some people, it's often not available.

MAX: Weselowski says the shortage of resources dates back to the mid-20th century. That's when government-run psychiatric hospitals shut down across the country. And officials promised to provide services in communities instead.

WESOLOWSKI: But you can't have community mental health care if you don't fund community mental health care.

MAX: Ibrahim Ayu feels let down by New York City's mental health system. He has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And he says he's been jailed and hospitalized many times. But Ayu says it's been difficult to get effective treatment, even in psychiatric hospitals.

IBRAHIM AYU: You're just sitting there waiting. Then somebody comes by and says, are you feeling suicidal or homicidal?

MAX: If you say no, he says, then you're released. Ayu says people often label him as mentally ill and don't want to dig any deeper into who he is. He wonders if the man in Brooklyn accused of assaulting people in his neighborhood feels the same way.

AYU: It's very easy to villainize people that are in the circumstances that me and that gentleman share. But you - quite normally, because we have mental illness, we're normally not villains. We're normally just misunderstood.

MAX: Ayu wishes people would make more of an effort to build a relationship with the man in Brooklyn and find out what he needs, instead of trying to remove him. For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Samantha Max
Samantha Max covers criminal justice for WPLN and joins the newroom through the Report for America program. This is her second year with Report for America: She spent her first year in Macon, Ga., covering health and inequity for The Telegraph and macon.com.