In Prospect Park, picnics, dog watching… and mental health talks

Jared Grant and Jonathan Timal, two recent college graduates in puffy coats and backpacks, were out in Prospect Park Monday morning approaching New Yorkers with a new request: They were conducting a survey to find out how people are doing.

Grant and Timal are part of a crew of six community health workers who fan out across parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx to ask people about their mental health and a wide range of factors that can contribute to it, such as their physical health, if they feel safe at home and if they have problems with housing or food security. They seek to connect people with resources such as mental health programs, eviction prevention and food pantries.

Their outings are part of a pilot city program called the Community Support Network, which launched six months ago and expanded to Prospect Park this month. City officials say they have learned from similar previous outreach efforts that fell flat with New Yorkers and will collect data on how many people they can help in the coming months.

When Gothamist joined Grant and Timal in Prospect Park on Monday, they had mixed results. Some people were not interested in being approached. Others appreciated the resources and having someone take an interest in their well-being. At least one person said the referral they received did not meet their particular needs.

Grant and Timal were first assigned to talk to people in the neighborhoods near the park, but they began taking the survey to the green space at the behest of the Prospect Park Alliance. Most community outreach focuses on zip codes targeted by the city for poor health outcomes, but at the park, Grant and Timal aim to reach visitors from a wide range of origins.

Grant and Timal come into the park two days a week, armed with printed lists of city resources that people can hint they need in the course of their conversations.

Sometimes it’s just about them being able to vent and tell us how they feel because they don’t have anyone to talk to, Timal said.

He said surveys sometimes last just a few minutes, but his longest conversation lasted an hour and covered everything that had happened to the person since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grant and Timal try to provide a referral to a city service whenever possible, and the city tracks the types of concerns people have and the resources they are referred to.

We know the front door to our mental health system can be hard to find and hard to access, said Dr. Ashwin Vasan, the city’s health commissioner.

Vasan said the city aims to help New Yorkers walk through that front door, while keeping a broad view of what resources or aids can improve someone’s mental health. The city’s approach is informed by evidence that mental health can be linked to a range of external stressors. For example, a 2022 survey by the city’s health department found that New Yorkers who struggled to pay rent or pay for groceries were much more likely to report symptoms of psychological distress than those who did not.

The Community Support Network pilot project is funded by a $700,000 grant from the Helmsley Foundation and initially runs through June, but the health department could seek funding to extend it if survey data they show that New Yorkers find it useful.

Prospect Park Alliance President Morgan Monaco pushed for the park to be one of the survey sites. He said Brooklynites became more connected to the park during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it served as a refuge as much of the city went into lockdown and indoor gatherings were canceled. consider unsafe She wants park programming to play a more active role in improving the health of New Yorkers.

The park is a place where people come to feel a sense of relief, Monaco said.

The Community Support Network is only a few months old, so it remains to be seen whether New Yorkers will appreciate being asked about their problems out of the blue. City officials were able to provide data on only a few dozen interactions so far. But an earlier initiative that invited New Yorkers to sit on orange friendship benches to talk about their mental health portion of former Mayor Bill de Blasios ThriveNYC initiative was not very popular, Vasan said.

He blamed the fact that New Yorkers had to choose to sit and talk, instead of being actively addressed.

New Yorkers are busy people, Vasan said. They carried the conversation.”

Grant and Timal said they sometimes approach homeless people in the park, but don’t specifically identify them. They said the idea is that anyone could use some kind of help.

Brooklynite Jasmine Williams, 28, was relaxing by the lake after a run Monday when Grant and Timal approached her.

The two had already bumped into a man leaning his phone against a tree to record a TikTok video, a couple feeding ducks a can of Quaker Oats and several park visitors who didn’t speak enough English to answer a survey. Although interviewers have the option of using a remote translation service, according to Shola Thompson, the director of community mental health programming for the city health department, Grant and Timal didn’t try their luck.

Williams mostly answered the survey questions with quiet yes and no answers. When Grant asked her if she was worried about how she was dealing with her emotions, she said yes. When asked if she had anyone to talk to, she said no.

Grant gave her a list of city resources and pointed to the website and phone number of the city’s mental health center, NYC Well. Williams had been looking for a therapist and said she was grateful for the suggestion. He rated the survey five out of five in terms of usefulness.

But another New Yorker approached by community health workers gave a more lukewarm response.

It’s pretty broad and a little vague, Adrienne Cobb said of the survey after it was over. But, he added, it’s a great start.

Cobb had said yes when Timal asked him: Do you have any concerns about your physical health or the physical health of a family member or friend? But when Timal referred her to the NYC Health and Hospitals website, she said it was more of an insurance issue. Grant and Timal didn’t direct him to any specific insurance resources, and the conversation moved on to the next topic.

Some of the services offered through the initiative, such as NYC Well, are already promoted through conventional media such as subway ads. But city health officials say the one-on-one conversations are meant to draw people in and help them find resources that meet their needs.

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