Experts praise New York City for making free mental health counseling available at vaccine sites

Most city-run sites in New York City are now offering walk-up COVID-19 vaccinations for residents without an appointment. And now, those seeking a vaccine in the city will get an added perk: free mental health counseling.

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio made the announcement on Thursday, saying that the city would be providing "mental health check-ins" for everyone who is vaccinated.

"If you go to a city-sponsored site after you've gotten your shot, there’ll be outreach workers there to check in with you to see if you have any mental health concerns you want to talk about," DeBlasio said. "If you need any mental health support, if you want to get more information, or if you need a follow-up appointment, we're going to be at our city-sponsored vaccination sites, helping hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in the coming weeks by giving them a free vaccination."

DeBlasio said the city wanted to "go the extra mile" to "check in" and see how people are doing. "If they are going through mental health challenges, as so many people are in this crisis, let's make sure that they get that next step, that they get the help they need," he said.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 08: Mara Bianco takes a photo of Dawn Casale as she is administered the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine at the Northwell Health pop-up coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination site at the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center in Staten Island on April 08, 2021 in New York City. NYC continues to have a 6.55 percent coronavirus (COVID-19) cases on a seven-day rolling average as the city continues to ramp up vaccinations. The city last week set a record of 524,520 coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccinations. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the Northwell Health pop-up vaccination site at the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center in Staten Island on April 08, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

A spokesperson for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene tells Yahoo Life that the mental health services are free, but referred to the mayor's comments when asked whether the counselors can and cannot address certain topics. It appears to be the first program of its kind.

Mental health experts applaud the move.

"This is an excellent idea," psychologist Frank Ghinassi, president and CEO of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, tells Yahoo Life. "This moves mental health care from a specialty model to a public health model, which is very important. It’s like putting fluoride in the water — it benefits everyone."

"I absolutely love it," Joyce Marter, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life, tells Yahoo Life. "I hope more cities follow suit. The more points of contact for mental health awareness, education, prevention, screenings, assessment and referral services, the better. We were living in a mental health epidemic prior to the pandemic and the pandemic has added gasoline to the fire."

Thea Gallagher, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania's Perlman School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that this is "groundbreaking," adding, "it's sending the message to people that we do care about your mental health."

Ghinassi says there's a clear need for these services. "Before the pandemic, one in five Americans struggled with anxiety or depression," he says. "All polls over the last year and half agree on one thing: More Americans are reporting signs of depression and anxiety." Having mental health services available —and for free — can help, he says.

The free aspect is important, Ghinassi says. "By making behavioral health services broadly available, regardless of income, you improve access and reduce stigma. It’s a wonderful formula," he says.

Access is also crucial, Marter says, given the high demand for mental health services right now. "Many counseling agencies and practices are full and have waiting lists," she says. "These services could be a bridge of support before folks get into treatment."

Offering free mental health services at vaccination centers can also help people with anxiety about getting the vaccine. "There is an enormous amount of anxiety relative to this vaccine," Ghinassi says. "Very little of it is founded in science, so the ability to have somebody there to assist with those who have found this to be very anxiety-inducing is helpful."

Gallagher is hopeful that there will be follow-up care available if people need more mental health services. "Mental health isn’t something you can get a vaccine for," she says. "You have to work on it long-term."

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