Teens in New York now have access to free online therapy through a citywide program that launched Wednesday, officials said.
Teens in the city, ages 13 to 17, can text, call or video chat with licensed therapists through the online platform Talkspace without providing payment, insurance information or referrals, officials said.
The teen telehealth initiative, billed by Mayor Eric Adams as the largest of its kind in the country, has been months in the making. The idea was first announced in March as part of the city’s plan to address the rise in mental health challenges since the start of the pandemic.
Among the sobering statistics officials pointed to: The share of city students reporting suicidal ideation has jumped to nearly 16% from about 12% over the past decade. About 9% of the city’s high school students reported attempting suicide during 2021, according to a survey by the Ministry of Health.
“There’s something that happened to the babies with COVID and the children of COVID that we’re not going to ignore,” Adams said at a news conference Wednesday announcing the launch of the program.
Our young people are on their phones, using the Internet, using social networks, he continued. We need to really find ways to turn that device into a positive instead of trying to suppress the natural flow of how young people use their social media platforms.
The deal with Talkspace will cost the city about $26 million, Politico first reported.
Teens can register for the program, called NIC Teenspace, starting Wednesday. The application page asks students for their birthday and address before going through a series of questions about their current mental health. According to the creators of the platform, parental consent is required.
In addition to speaking with licensed therapists via text, phone, or video chat, students can also take self-directed courses. Messaging is unlimited, but live sessions are limited to once per month, according to the company. A spokesman for the Ministry of Health said the children would see the same therapist for each session.
For children in acute crisis, Teenspace providers will refer them to psychiatric care or a personal counselor, officials said.
Talkspace CEO Jon Cohen said texting was particularly useful.
We’ve learned that when people are faced with something stressful, texting is a powerful tool at their fingertips, he said.
Virtual therapy has become a popular tool in many educational institutions, but city officials acknowledged that the evidence base for the practice is still weak.
City health department commissioner Ashwin Vasan, who came up with the idea for the initiative, said he hopes it will evolve based on the teenagers’ feedback.
I just want to talk to the young people for a moment, he said at a press conference on Wednesday. Your voice will help guide and shape this resource. If you use it, and if you like it, tell your friends. If you use it and don’t like it, tell us. So fix it.
Dr. Jessica Chock-Goldman, a school social worker at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, said there is a severe shortage of therapists for inner-city teenagers, especially those from low-income families without private health insurance. Any attempt to expand access is a good idea, she said. But she pointed out that this service cannot replace regular therapy, given the rarity of video sessions.
Before she starts referring students, she wants more information, including how many therapists are Black and Latino.
Cohen said about 35% of Talkspace providers who will work with New York City students identify as BIPOC. Approximately 84% of New York City students are Black, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, or multiracial.
The health department has not given a specific target for how many students the agency hopes to participate. Our goal is to provide services to as many teenagers as possible throughout the city, said the spokesperson.
Health and education department officials said schools will receive materials to help publicize the initiative.
Chok-Goldman said she first heard about the program Wednesday through the Department of Education’s Instagram page.
It’s great to have the resources, but we just need new details about the new resources, she said.
Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering New York public schools. Contact Michael at email@example.com.
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