Testimony to the City Council on the Mental Health Needs of our Youth

November 9, 2022

Greetings Chair Stevens and Members of the Committees on Youth Services and Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction.

My name is Jose Cotto and I am the Senior Vice President for Residential Treatment at the Institute for Community Living, commonly known as ICL.

ICL is a community-based behavioral health organization with nearly four decades of experience serving New Yorkers with various levels of mental and behavioral health needs.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify today about the mental health needs of our younger neighbors.

The need is great and, unfortunately, getting greater by the day. Services, as you well know, are not keeping up.

Because 75% of mental illness is diagnosed by the age of 24 and we’ve seen depression and anxiety double for children and youth over the course of the pandemic, NYC has a rare opportunity and a mandate to do better for our children and young adults by making the mental health system more robust. This includes investments in preventative and ongoing care, attracting and retaining a talented workforce and removing regulatory barriers that prevent integration of care to serve the whole person and the whole family.

ICL offers a continuum of care for over 1,000 children and youth with all levels of acuity. We do this in schools, community clinics, through community-based programs like CFTSS and OnTrack, and through our housing programs.

We also have a series of programs and residences for youth ages 18-26 who experience serious mental challenges and who are coming from residential treatment centers and foster care. We help these young people develop independent living skills and move into more independent and permanent housing, reconnect with family and natural supports, and pursue vocation and higher education.

We also started and run the unique Emerson Davis Family Development Center which works to keep children with their parents by addressing the mental health challenges parents face so that they can care for their children. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that nothing is more important to the development of a child and to their future well-being than growing up with a consistently­present adult who loves them unconditionally. We strive to ensure every child at Emerson Davis has that opportunity and we’ve been extremely successful.

And from a society perspective, what I think is really important about a program like Emerson Davis is its success in prevention. Clearly the better we do at addressing mental health challenges before they escalate, the better off we all are.

Emerson Davis isn’t our only program to address prevention. Our OnTrack program is designed to support young people after their first experience with psychosis.

Benn is one of those young people. Benn came to us after a very stressful period in their life led to a crisis situation. Our staff, in particularly the peers who work in the program, supported Benn in getting better and getting back on track with life. I’m thrilled to say that Benn is back to school working towards a radiography degree and doing what Benn loves best, which is making art. Importantly, Benn has not experienced another episode. That’s exactly the intent of the program.

The fact is, everyone can get better. We believe in the infinite ability of people to make decisions and do the hard work to get well. What we don’t have is enough programs to support them all. You only need to look at a newspaper to know that. And, of course, all of you here today are very attuned to what’s happening.

The nonprofits that do this work are committed to serving all of those people that need our support. Just look at what we did during the height of the pandemic when everyone else was locked up at home. The staff at nonprofits like ICL was coming to work every day. We knew our clients were counting on us.

But there’s only so much we can do. We too need support, specifically in the form of dollars and workforce development.

I know you all know about the struggles nonprofits face in paying workers fair wages. The people who work at nonprofits are mission driven. Unfortunately, landlords and grocery stores won’t take that as a form of payment. We need to increase pay or we will continue to struggle with high vacancy rates and extremely high turnover, which in some positions averages about 50%.

We also need to attract more people to the field and maybe there’s something that the City of New York could do to make social service jobs more attractive beyond just the pay. We need a creative campaign to inspire people to enter the field.

As someone who’s worked for years in social services I can tell you that there’s nothing that is more rewarding than this work. Working with someone like Benn and watching them get healthier and happier and more fulfilled and lead lives of their own choosing is immensely gratifying. I could think of no higher calling. We need to promote that so that other people see it as a potential career track.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify.

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About Institute for Community Living

It is Institute for Community Living’s (ICL) mission to help New Yorkers with behavioral health challenges live healthy and fulfilling lives by providing comprehensive housing, health care, and recovery services. We take a trauma-informed approach—meeting the people we serve wherever they are, working together to support them in achieving their goals.

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