In Prospect Park, picnics, dog-watching… and chats about mental health

Jared Grant and Jonathan Timal, two recent college grads sporting puffy coats and backpacks, were out in Prospect Park on Monday morning approaching New Yorkers with a novel 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 are fanning out in parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx to ask people about their mental health and a wide range of factors that might contribute to it, such as their physical health, whether they feel safe at home, and whether they have issues with housing or food security. They look to connect people with resources like mental health programs, eviction prevention and food pantries.

Their outings are part of a city pilot program called the Community Support Network, which launched six months ago and expanded into Prospect Park this month. City officials say they’ve learned from similar past outreach efforts that fell flat with New Yorkers and will be collecting data about how many people they can help over the next few months.

When Gothamist joined Grant and Timal in Prospect Park on Monday, they had mixed results. Some people weren’t interested in being approached. Others were grateful for the resources and that someone took an interest in their well-being. At least one person said the referral they received didn’t meet their particular needs.

Grant and Timal were first assigned to talk to people in neighborhoods near the park, but started bringing the survey into the green space at the behest of the Prospect Park Alliance. Most of the Community Support Network’s outreach focuses on ZIP codes the city is targeting because of poor health outcomes, but at the park, Grant and Timal aim to reach visitors from a wide range of backgrounds.

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

“Sometimes it’s just about them being able to vent and tell us how they’re feeling because they have no one to talk to,” Timal said.

He said surveys sometimes last just a few minutes, but his longest conversation went on for an hour and covered everything that had happened to the person since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Grant and Timal try to give out a referral to a city service whenever possible, and the city tracks the kind 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 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 aid can improve someone’s mental health. The city’s approach is informed by evidence that mental health can be linked to an array of outside stressors. For instance, a 2022 survey by the city health department found that New Yorkers who experienced difficulty paying rent or affording groceries were far more likely to report symptoms of psychological distress than those who didn’t.

The Community Support Network pilot is funded through a $700,000 grant from the Helmsley Foundation and initially goes through June, but the health department could seek out funding to extend it if data from the surveys shows New Yorkers find it helpful.

Prospect Park Alliance President Morgan Monaco pushed for the park to be one of the survey sites. She said Brooklynites became more connected to the park during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it served as a haven as much of the city was shut down and indoor gatherings were deemed unsafe. She wants park programming to take a more active role in improving New Yorkers’ health.

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

The Community Support Network is just 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 just a few dozen interactions so far. But a previous initiative that invited New Yorkers to sit down on orange “friendship benches” to talk about their mental health — part of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ThriveNYC initiative — wasn’t very popular, Vasan said.

He blamed the fact that New Yorkers had to choose to sit down to talk, rather than being actively approached.

“New Yorkers are busy people,” Vasan said. “We’re bringing the conversation to them.”

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

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

The two had already struck out with a man propping his phone up against a tree to record a TikTok video, a couple feeding ducks out of a tin of Quaker Oats and several parkgoers who didn’t speak enough English to take a survey. Although interviewers have the option to use a remote translation service, according to Shola Thompson, the city health department’s director of mental health community programming, Grant and Timal didn’t try their luck.

Williams mostly responded to the survey questions with quiet “yes” and “no” answers. When Grant asked if she had concerns about how she was coping with her emotions, she said yes. When he asked if she had someone to talk to, she said no.

Grant offered her a list of city resources and pointed to the website and phone number for the city’s mental health hub, NYC Well. Williams had been searching for a therapist and said she was grateful for the suggestion. She rated the survey a five out of five in terms of helpfulness.

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

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

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

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

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