Chirlane McCray, leader of ThriveNYC (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
First Lady Chirlane McCray’s signature mental health initiative ThriveNYC has faced withering criticism for spending hundreds of millions of dollars with few concrete results to show for it. But amid increasing scrutiny the de Blasio administration is seeking to put those concerns to rest as the Office of ThriveNYC for the first time releases detailed data tracking the outcomes of dozens of programs that have been launched under the Thrive banner.
It’s part of a reclamation project for McCray and her husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who have heralded ThriveNYC as a one-of-its-kind roadmap and national model, but struggled to show evidence of its effectiveness, particularly whether it was helping New Yorkers with serious mental illnesses. The mayor and first lady brought Susan Herman from the NYPD to the mayor’s office to establish better benchmarks, data-tracking, and standing for the program, and Herman is now showing the initial results of her work as executive director of ThriveNYC.
ThriveNYC’s proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1, is about $235.3 million, bringing its total spending to nearly $1 billion since the umbrella program was launched in 2015. Its programs include a mental health hotline, on-site mental health services at city schools, dedicated outreach teams for veterans, mental health screenings for younger adults at Department of Corrections facilities and for seniors at centers run by the Department for the Aging, to name a few.
Herman was named the director of Thrive a year ago, when it was formed into a standalone office under the mayoralty. In June of last year, the office released a list of about 100 metrics that it would be tracking to indicate program outcomes, the result of sustained criticism of the program by the mayor’s political opponents, budget watchdogs, City Council members, and others, which came after multiple media exposes and an embarrassing City Council oversight hearing.
When Herman took over, she set out to refine the program’s goals, culled down to four – strengthening crisis prevention and response, promoting mental health for the youngest New Yorkers, eliminating barriers to care, and reaching those with the greatest mental health needs.
While specific programs have been up and running for years – some have been refined, others expanded, and some cut back – they have so far only showed the city’s investments and inputs rather than outcomes. Last week, Comptroller Scott Stringer even added ThriveNYC to his “watch list” of city agencies, criticizing its profligate spending and lack of transparency.
The data released on Tuesday finally shows how much money is being spent on each program under ThriveNYC and the results of that spending. In an interview at the ThriveNYC office on Friday, Herman explained the new data and why it took so long to produce.
She said the office could only collect results once the programs had been implemented. “This was the undertaking that we went through very carefully last spring with all our partner agencies,” she said. “So some of them had to create new ways of collecting data and that takes time. Some of the effort is extremely time consuming.”
The data will be updated every quarter, with some indicators being updated semi-annually and annually, Herman said. The office also launched a new website to display the data and released a report showing its progress, including how many New Yorkers have received services between 2016 through June 2019, and highlighting how the program has achieved its four core goals.
Herman emphasized that the data release was not a scrambling response to the repeated criticism ThriveNYC has faced. “This is clearly a part of good government,” she said. “When you have a program, and you're ready to say this is how it's working. I think it will address many people's concerns but that's not why we're doing it. We’re doing it because it's part of what you do.”
She also noted that the comptroller may have jumped the gun when he claimed Thrive was not providing him with data he requested last week. Herman said Stringer requested detailed information on budgets, contracts and more, part of which includes the data released on Tuesday. “It’s a massive undertaking and he’ll get that shortly,” she said.
“I'm not really sure why he's added Thrive to the watch list,” she added. “I'm happy to talk to him about Thrive anytime he wants and I'm sure that some of this will satisfy some of his concerns. I don't think anybody can look at this data and not think that we are not only reaching a lot of people, but we're changing people's lives for the better.”
Stringer criticized the Thrive initiative’s failure to show line-by-line program expenditures and their results, which had been promised by the end of last year. “It should not take this long to produce metrics,” he said. “The current structure of Thrive can only be considered successful if it can prove its effectiveness.”
The new ThriveNYC progress report highlights some of those impacts. For instance, it shows that many people with serious mental illness are getting consistent help, something Herman also stressed in the interview. About 89% of clients treated by Intensive Mobile Treatment teams continue to receive treatment for more than a year, it says. According to other metrics, 90% of crime victims said they felt better after receiving services from the Crime Victim Assistance Program and 47% of seniors showed clinical improvement in depression symptoms after three months of treatment at a senior center.
The next stage, Herman said, will evaluate whether Thrive is having an impact at the larger population level by measuring whether New Yorkers with mental health needs get the treatment they require and whether fewer mental health needs turn into crises.
Herman also addressed questions about specific Thrive programs that have cropped up over time. The Mental Health Service Corps program, one of the most expensive aspects of Thrive, has been significantly scaled back after a disastrous launch and severe structural issues. “I would say it's been right-sized,” Herman said.
She also drew a distinction between an existing Home Visits program for new parents that is run under Thrive, as opposed to the new one recently announced by McCray that City Hall said is not considered part of the Thrive umbrella, without explaining why. Thrive’s program is aimed at filling a gap for families living in shelters, while McCray’s announcement covers the expansion of a program currently run by the Health Department, Herman said.
“What some people are missing is that Thrive isn't the mental health care system. It's much, much bigger than Thrive,” she said. “The Thrive initiative was to identify particularly critical gaps, and try and fill them in innovative ways, to reach people who haven't been reached before, to serve particularly underserved neighborhoods, to serve people in new ways.”
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette