Working in New York City nightlife over the past 20 years, Mizael Ramos said he had witnessed a lot of people dealing with substance use and mental health issues. At one point, he said he took a break from hosting parties to get into recovery himself. He said people in the industry don’t tend to talk publicly about these struggles.
“People don't want to talk about some of those issues,” said Ramos, who has worked in a range of nightlife roles. “Can we just skip it and go right into drinking? Skip it and go right into work? New York City is so fast-paced.”
Ramos is now volunteering to assist with a new free online support group the city launched this summer for people in the nightlife industry. The group, which meets Monday afternoons, is part of a broader initiative called Elevate, launched by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health. The program also offers people working in entertainment, bars and clubs access to free individual case managers who can provide connections to therapy and other behavioral health services. Ramos said he had been heartened by the weekly conversations.
“It's been such a great opportunity to have a space to talk to people who are dealing with depression, mental health issues, substance use issues and navigating New York city nightlife and trying to make ends meet,” Ramos said.
The city is providing the services through Backline, a national nonprofit initially founded to help people in the music industry. For now, the $15,000 initiative runs through the end of the year, with the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health spending $5,200 for Backline to run the weekly support group. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment has committed an additional $9,750 for case management. A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment didn’t give an estimate of how many people the program could serve, only that it aims to reach as many nightlife personnel as possible.
Elevate is also hosting an upcoming webinar on how to use fentanyl test strips and the overdose reversal medication naloxone, and another offering bystander training on how to identify risk for depression and suicide.
Night Mayor Ariel Palitz says the initiative is part of a larger mission to take the concerns of New Yorkers in the nightlife industry seriously. Palitz says she identified harm reduction around alcohol and drug use as one of her early priorities for the Office of Nightlife, after it launched in 2018, by conducting a listening tour throughout the five boroughs.
“It's not just a night out,” she said. “This is not only culturally important and our calling card to the world, it's our economic engine. It's a $35.1 billion industry. It supports 300,000 jobs, small businesses.”
“As someone who’s definitely still struggling with the trauma of the last year and a half and having to DJ in front of big crowds, or even just be in a big crowd, [Elevate is] something I would definitely take advantage of,” Lauren Flax, a DJ and member of a separate overdose prevention group Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, said upon hearing about the initiative. “Luckily, I have a therapist I work with every week, but not everyone has access.”
Finding an affordable therapist in the city can be difficult, even for those with insurance. And increased demand amid the pandemic has made it even harder, said Linda Rosenberg, an associate in psychiatric social work at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Targeting resources to specific populations, such as those working in nightlife and providing free case management could make it easier for someone to connect to help when they’re ready, added Rosenberg. She has worked with the city on previous mental health initiatives but was not involved in planning Elevate.
By funding the program on a limited basis to start, she said, “You get a chance both to see if people use it and also to make whatever changes are needed based upon how people used it.”
When COVID-19 forced the Bushwick nightclub House of Yes to close last spring, the club’s cofounder Anya Sapozhnikova said she lost not only her main source of income but also her outlet for creative expression and her social life.
“We all have trauma, we all have something that can be worked on internally,” she said. “All of that just really bubbled to the surface. And then when you take away all the coping mechanisms and you take away your community, you're really left with just the demons to take over.”
By last October, Sapozhnakova realized she needed help, and she checked herself into a 30-day inpatient stay in a psychiatric hospital. A couple of months after she got out, she hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Zoom in which she answered questions about her experience from others in the nightlife industry and fans of House of Yes. She noticed a huge amount of interest in the topic.
Night Mayor Palitz said the pandemic made behavioral health in general a more urgent priority. “Without question, the pandemic really emphasized the immediacy and the reality that we are in a crisis,” she added.
Palitz reached out to Sapozhnakova about her plans for Elevate around the time she held the AMA about her inpatient stay. Sapozhnakova said she was excited to continue the conversation around mental health and is now working to promote the resources the city has made available among her staff and the broader network of entertainers House of Yes employs.
“We're all about just spreading the word and getting this into people's hands,” said Sapozhnakova, “because I know that a lot of people are definitely still struggling.”