Mental Health Crises: Our Q&A with Doreen Odom of NYC’s Urban Justice Center

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I’ve been thinking about mental health lately. My desire to be informed is, unfortunately, at odds with my desire to stay sane.  Of course, I fear that we are collectively experiencing a mental health crisis.  The CDC says on its website, in a masterpiece of understatement: “The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.” And that’s not even considering the trauma inherent with the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the current political tumult.  So who better to talk to than Doreen Odom, the Managing Director of the Mental Health Project for the Urban Justice Center in New York City? Doreen was kind enough to answer some questions for us about her work, and here is what she had to say.

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Our Q&A with Doreen Odom:

Hometown: Queens, NY

Current town: Brooklyn, NY

Position: Managing Director of the Mental Health Project for the Urban Justice Center

Date: January 7, 2021

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Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions, which I really appreciate.  When describing your job–what is your “elevator pitch”?  How do you sum up the work you do? 

I’m the Managing Director of the Mental Health Project (MHP) of the Urban Justice Center. MHP’s mission is to disrupt and dismantle the cycle of homelessness, incarceration, and hospitalization that traps people experiencing poverty with serious mental health concerns in New York City.     

We do this from a client-centered, anti-oppression framework in our core areas of practice, criminal justice advocacy, health justice advocacy, and disability justice advocacy, by securing financial and medical benefits to prevent homelessness and hospitalization; ensuring proper discharge planning prior to community members’ release from jail; offering peer advocacy and educational workshops on reentry and systems advocacy; providing social work support; and  advocating for policy changes to the systems that impact our client community. 

I have the privilege of working with a fierce group of advocates who help our clients navigate obstacles while working to dismantle those obstacles for all New Yorkers with mental health concerns. 

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And how does the Mental Health Project fit in with the other work of the Urban Justice Center? Do you collaborate with the other initiatives–and if so how does that work? Mental health is a very broad topic and must touch many lives, directly and indirectly. 

The Urban Justice Center (UJC) is a collective of different projects that work independently but with definite overlap in our vision, work, and missions.  UJC incubates new projects by providing them with material support, guidance, and a community of other advocates with which to connect and collaborate.  UJC also has longstanding anchor projects, like the Mental Health Project, that work on critical issues facing vulnerable community members in New York City. 

MHP does collaborate with other projects, most frequently UJC’s Safety Net Project, on issues related to clients’ supportive housing.  Access to supportive housing is a huge need of people with mental health concerns experiencing poverty in our community. 

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Many years ago I did an internship at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and one of the projects that was going on at the time was seeking equity for mental health care when it comes to insurance–many plans had very low and seemingly arbitrary cutoffs as far as covered services for mental health. Things have improved since then—there’s now a legal requirement for mental health parity. (I had to look it up–the law was passed in 2008.)  What else still needs to be done, legally?  What laws would most benefit the work you do? 

MHP was part of a group that developed the NYC Roadmap for Mental Health Resources and Diversion.  I want to share that with your readers because it lays out the supports and resources that are necessary to really help people with serious mental health concerns experiencing poverty in New York City, and disrupt the cycle I mentioned earlier.  I’d emphasize the importance of expanding supportive housing, developing real non-police interventions for people experiencing mental health crisis (See CCIT-NYC proposal) and ending the torture that is solitary confinement in State and local jails and prisons by passing the Halt Solitary Confinement Act

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What do people not know about mental health in this country that they should know? 

One of the biggest challenges facing the mental health community is the stigma surrounding mental health struggles and getting help.  I’ve heard this a lot since I began working at MHP.  This stigma results in the marginalization of people who are struggling, and it prevents community members, our neighbors, friends, and family, from getting the help that they need.  We need to work to address this stigma as a community and we can all work on this. 

It’s interesting, but not surprising, that addressing the stigma is something that comes up as a big issue–my friend Lorna Breen, an emergency doctor, died by suicide last year, and her family created a non-profit (the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation) which is attempting to address the issue for medical professionals, who often do not seek help in the area of mental health because of the harm it may do their careers.  (I’m really glad that they’re channeling their energies into trying to help others–it is really important work and this has been a tough, tough year for the medical profession.)

Laura, I’m so sorry about your friend.  It’s wonderful that her family is doing that.  It has been a really hard year in so many ways, so much devastating loss.

Thanks for your kind words.  Lorna was great, a super good person, and so many people miss her.  I give her sister and brother in law a lot of credit for doing so much good work in her name.  And yes, it has been such a hard year for so many.  So many people lost and no way to have our normal rituals to say goodbye and comfort the mourning.  

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On another topic, police reform: what would be the ideal changes from your perspective?  New York State recently has allowed police disciplinary records to be made subject to the Freedom of Information Law–what other legal changes would improve how law enforcement handles people in crisis? 

Reform starts with approaching someone having a mental health crisis from a place of care and support and not discipline and punishment.  MHP is a supporter of Correct Crisis Intervention Today NYC (CCIT-NYC) and we support their proposal for non-police inventions to help people going through mental health crisis.  The proposal includes using a separate call number, 988 instead of 911, for these crises calls and incorporating peer advocates in this work. 

And of course, we need to work on a more appropriate medical response for people in crisis. Emergency medicine developed a systemic response to trauma (handling people in car accidents, victims of violent crimes, etc.) based on how medics handled combat injuries, and designating certain hospitals as trauma centers, etc.  It seems like our medical community also needs to develop a comprehensive response to handle mental health–if you could wave a magic wand, how would you suggest making that happen? 

Generally, we need supportive responses to people experiencing mental health crisis in New York City from a client-centered, harm reduction approach.  NYC Roadmap for Mental Health Resources and Diversion lays out important changes needed, such as expanding site-based treatment, including creating more crisis respite centers and removing barriers to access those centers, creating more mental health urgent cares accessible to people without private insurance, and expanding field-based treatment, including funding more intensive mobile care units.  If I had a magic wand, I’d implement the changes outlined in the Roadmap. 

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If you could give everybody in this country a book assignment, what book should we all read? 

I’m reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste right now.  Her look at the hierarchy of the U.S. racial caste system is an important framework for understanding systems of oppression in this country.

I have heard good things about that one.  It’s on my to-be-read list (which is very long). What is the best advice you’ve been given?  

Slow down, especially right now.  It’s so important for us as a country of communities to center self-care and caring for each other as our driving movement forward.

Last but not least, is there anything else you would like to pitch, promote, or discuss?  

Please visit our website Mental Health Project (urbanjustice.org) and follow-us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to learn more about our work.  And here’s my end of year letter, because I think it might be more helpful in understanding the work that we do.   A look back at what we did last year might explain better who we are.

End of Year Letter

I started as the Managing Director of the UJC Mental Health Project (MHP) almost a year ago now and it’s been a year of unprecedented challenges, particularly for our clients and client communities.  COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted our clients. The pandemic has increased isolation and added new barriers for our clients to access needed benefits and medical care. It’s been a challenging year; it is a difficult time. 

MHP’s mission is to disrupt and dismantle the cycle of homelessness, incarceration, and hospitalization that traps people experiencing poverty with mental health concerns. 

There is an urgency to our work particularly in this moment.  I’m asking you to join in our mission today and support the Mental Health Project by visiting www.mhp.urbanjustice.org/donate. Your gift will help us continue our work in 2021.  

In this past year, I’ve had the privilege of working with fierce MHP advocates who help our clients navigate obstacles while working to dismantle these obstacles for all New Yorkers with mental health concerns.  Throughout the pandemic, with racial justice and anti-oppression resistance at the forefront of our work, MHP advocates, lawyers and social workers adapted in new and innovative ways to meet our clients’ needs.  We advocated for systemic change in our core areas of practice and continued to bring a client-centered harm reduction approach to our work. 

Criminal Justice Advocacy– We continued to fight for the humane treatment of our community members held in New York jails and prisons. Anticipating the devastating impact of COVID-19 in City jails, we helped push for the release of individuals in high-risk groups, including people with serious mental health concerns.  We also pushed the Mayor to end the use of solitary confinement in jails and are still fighting for the City to follow through on this commitment. 

Health Justice Advocacy– We fought back against proposed cuts to State Medicaid that would have significantly hurt our client community and continued to push policymakers to listen to the voices of people impacted in setting policy. We developed and grew our Access to Recovery Coalition that advocates for improvements to Medicaid policies to allow easier access to recovery-oriented services for New Yorkers with mental health concerns. 

Disability Advocacy– We provided zealous representation to our clients at Social Security hearings, held now via telephone, and continued our appeals of denials of Social Security benefits in federal court.  As part of a national advocacy group, we succeeded in protecting certain rights of unrepresented claimants before the Social Security Administration.  We helped convince the Administration to adjust its practices to contact an applicant by phone before it denied a claim based on an applicant’s failure to cooperate, to halt claim dismissals completely and to review their recent dismissal orders, given the high rate of dismissals during the pandemic. 

Social Work, Peer and Justice Advocacy–We provided support to clients in crisis and helped clients access crucial benefits. We moved our educational workshops online and developed new and more frequent online peer events for community members. We connected clients to mental health services, sometimes telehealth services, and helped them navigate technology to access online communities. 

COVID relief– We distributed almost $40,000 in emergency funds to our clients impacted by the pandemic and helped to ensure over 200 current and former clients were able to access their stimulus checks. 

Help us disrupt the cycle 

Our team at MHP will continue to fight the systems of oppression that impact the mental health community, but we need your support.  Thank you and have a happy and healthy 2021!  

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IMAGE CREDITS

Lead-In Image by Martin Olsen on Unsplash; Portrait Courtesy of Doreen Odom

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a  100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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