An outdoor approach to mental health treatment

Good morning. it’s tuesday Well, discover a pilot project that brings teams that can manage mental health issues to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Also get details on developments in the cases against Donald Trump in New York.

We try to figure out what’s going on in someone’s life, said Jonathan Timal, one half of a team that was 30 minutes into an eight-hour shift in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

He and Jared Grant, his teammate at the nonprofit Brooklyn Neighborhood Housing Services, have a simple mission: Get people in the park to anyone, not just people who show signs of ‘stress or instability and ask a question to start a conversation, such as How do you feel today?

They have a lot of stuff bottled up and no one to talk to, Grant said. It just helps to let people express themselves.

Timal and Grant are the faces of a pilot project, now in its fourth week, called Open Air Connections. It announced that it sought to remove the stigma surrounding mental health care through a community outreach effort. Both men were trained to assess the concerns of people they approach and the severity of those concerns and make referrals to agencies that can offer help.

Most people are just getting by and just need a little extra, said Shola Thompson, an official with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene who devised the program.

But Morgan Monaco, the president of the Prospect Park Alliance, the nonprofit group that runs the park, added: You don’t know until you ask.

That’s not usually done in parks, Monaco said as Timal and Grant talked to two men near the park’s skating rink. This represents a new way of thinking about how parks contribute to public health outcomes.

It’s a way of thinking that gained popularity during the pandemic, when parks became a refuge for many New Yorkers. The parks offered a break from the stresses of being confined to their apartments when bars and restaurants were essentially no-go zones and theaters and museums were closed.

For many, the pandemic also brought the stress of sudden and unplanned hardships, job losses and financial insecurity. No wonder the health department found that nearly 25 percent of New Yorkers questioned in an informal survey had experienced anxiety and that nearly 18 percent had suffered from depression. Almost half of those who said they felt they needed mental health support did not know where to go to get it.

Enter the Open Air Connections teams. But Timal and Grant said they heard more about the everyday concerns of city life than serious mental health issues.

There was a woman from Brazil who said she was concerned about the unfairness of the criminal justice systems here and there. Later, a woman who said she was a university professor talked about crime on the subway. She thought she should take a car because she doesn’t feel safe, Grant said.

They said they had spoken to a man in his 20s who lived near the park and was upset that his landlord wanted to double the rent, to $3,000. They called someone from Neighborhood Housing Services and referred the man to a specialist in landlord-tenant disputes and tenancy regulations.

Health Commissioner Dr. Jay Varma said in an interview that the program reflected the idea that mental health is not something we can deliver through conventional settings, particularly clinical settings. It’s something we have to bring to people.

That’s why the health department was leaning on the low-key model behind the pilot project, he said.

He said it was important that the teams did not work for the health department but for community organizations and that they did not wear white coats that called mental health professionals.

It’s not someone in a DOH sweatshirt, Varma said, using a short version of the initials for his agency, or a branded mayor’s initiative. This is a community organization that has been in the community, has a history of serving the community, and has people who live in the community.

Varma said each team was expected to participate in approximately 750 light touch encounters lasting five to 15 minutes and 500 medium to high touch encounters lasting up to half an hour.

Timal and Grant said their encounters tended to be on the long end of that range. Sometimes the conversation doesn’t stop and they’ve learned to let it go where the person leads. We could talk for hours, Grant said.

The weather

It will be a mostly cloudy day with temperatures reaching the mid-40s and winds up to 15 mph. At night, there will be a chance of light rain, with temperatures dropping into the upper 30s.


In force until Thursday (Maundy Thursday).


Dear Diary:

My sister was getting married in a small town in Maine. Both she and the boyfriend were transplants from Brooklyn.

My sister requested that I bring two large, fresh rye loaves as a special wedding gift. The day before, I stopped by Lords Bakery on Nostrand and Flatbush Avenue after finishing my classes at Brooklyn College.

I told the woman at the counter that I was buying the bread to take to my sisters wedding in Maine the next day.

I asked if I should cut the loaves. The woman said the bread could stay fresher on the long journey if it wasn’t cut.

It turned out that the groom had asked his brother to bring two large, fresh rye loaves. The brother also went to Lords and asked the same woman for two large loaves of rye, explaining that he would take them to a wedding in Maine the next day.

are you stretching my leg said the woman. A lady was here earlier asking for two rye loaves for her sisters wedding in Maine tomorrow. Am I on candid camera?

The brother of the bride and groom showed total ignorance.

He had his uncut, the woman said, referring to me. Maybe you should slice yourself?

Illustration by Agnes Lee. Submit submissions here i Read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad to be able to meet here. See you tomorrow. JB

PS: Here today Mini crosswords i Spelling contest. You can find all our puzzles here.

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