Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr.’s $2 million partnership with virtual therapy platform BetterHelp has made free mental health counseling available to Queens residents. This program, specifically designed to serve the Queens community, is in addition to other free New York City mental health resources available to all New York City residents. According to Indian-American mental health experts, this will also be of great help to the large population of South Asian descent who live in the neighborhood.
The grant is also awarded to 10 different Queens Community Organizations (CBOs), each receiving $175,000 worth of services to make available on their networks, with the remaining $250,000 being distributed to constituents at the discretion of the Queens Borough President’s Office. This program is designed to provide 3 free therapy sessions to approximately 8,000 individuals.
There has been a notable increase in reporting of mental health issues after the start of the pandemic. Mental health issues existed before that. But they were at a more manageable level. The unpredictability and loss of life led many to extreme stress. BetterHelp and TalkSpace, online therapy providers saw a 60% increase in their app downloads in 4 months between January and April 2021, according to the statistics.
In an exclusive interview with the News India Times, Reshma Shah, a licensed clinical social worker from the state of New York, said Richards’ donation will be very helpful. “It’s good that the donation went to the CBOs that are really working at the grassroots level in the community,” she said. These are organizations where people can look for other help, and during admission, someone may realize that the individual needs more help than just simple services and arranging for a mental health screening, she said. “This grant will allow mental health screenings to take place,” added Shah.
Therapy is expensive to continue for a long time. The really needy people couldn’t afford it. Students who have limited health insurance may need help as they face many mental health issues, including peer pressure, the need to belong, and academic excellence. The donation will make the therapy accessible to them as well as others, Shah said.
The 10 CBOs that received this grant are Elmcor Youth & Adult Activities in Corona, Glow Community Center in Flushing, Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association in Jackson Heights, LIFE Camp, Inc. in Jamaica, Phoenix Houses in Long Island City, Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation in Far Rockaway, Sunnyside Community Services in Sunnyside, United Federation of Teachers, Urban Resource Institute and Urban Upbound in Long Island City. Shah has worked with more than 3 of these organizations, she said.
Changing attitudes towards mental health
“Before the pandemic, people only sought help when they reached a crisis level,” Shah said. She said people now seek help knowing full well that therapy doesn’t have to be a last minute rescue attempt or a lifelong process. “They know it can be short-term and solution-focused. They know it’s like when you hurt your shoulder and go get it,” she said.
Shah herself noticed the change in attitude towards mental health among the South Asian community only when she conducted community mental health workshops. “There is a more open conversation now about mental health,” Shah said. “Now people are willing to come for services,” Shah said.
The mental health awareness workshops were very helpful in changing attitudes among the South Asian community, according to Shah. Most of these workshops are attended by 50 or 60 participants. Shah said he noticed more interaction in the workshops. “They weren’t shy about sharing their stories or examples of themselves or family members,” Shah said. Many participants admit to anxiety, negativity, and lack of sleep and ask for help in these areas. “I was amazed at how open the South Asian community was about mental health. Previously, they used to say that mental health issues were in other people’s homes, not theirs,” Shah said.
Shah, whose areas of expertise are psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and workshops, has just completed some mental health awareness workshops for India Home, a CBO, in Queens. These workshops aimed to raise community awareness about mental health. “I try to weave together different ways and techniques to manage stress and then point to the list of available resources,” Shah said. The workshops covered common mental health issues such as postpartum depression, stress management, anxiety management, depression and smoking cessation.
Psychological therapy is no longer taboo among South Asians. Nor is it a scare or interference. With a general awareness of mental health issues, people now tend to do more self-tests, ask more questions, and perceive the need for therapy. “The screening tools I use are common screening tools, which are basically self-report questionnaires that anyone can fill out and find out if, in the end, the score is irregular and seek advice,” Shah said.
More New York City Mental Health Resources
Shah shared two other New York City mental health resources available to anyone anywhere in the city, free and available 24/7. NYC Well’s mental services are educational and free. More information is available on their website (https://nycwell.cityofnewyork.us/en/). Mobile crisis teams and services offered by mental health professionals during a mental health crisis are provided by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health. More information about their services, which are also free and available 24/7, are available on their website (https://mentalhealthforall.nyc.gov/services/mobile-crisis-teams).
What will be the result of this awareness? What will change? “The change I see is people are talking about mental health issues,” Shah said. The impact of this heightened awareness will be on hospitals, according to Shah. “In a few years, we will see fewer and fewer people coming to hospitals due to mental health issues,” Shah said. “This is what we want. When something has just started and you are looking for a solution, the prognosis is better than when you wait a long time before seeking help. Problems can be solved at an earlier stage”, said Shah.