The city’s $26 million contract with Talkspace makes mental health care very accessible. But some worry it is ‘a Band-Aid’ at a time of crisis.

For the past month, New York City has been inviting teenagers to participate in one of the biggest experiments in the country aimed at helping struggling adolescents: a program offering free online therapy to all residents ages 13 to 17.

The city has entered a three-year, $26 million contract with Talkspace, one of the largest digital mental health care providers. After a parent or legal guardian signs a consent form, teenagers can exchange unlimited messages with an assigned therapist and receive one 30-minute virtual therapy session each month.

The rollout of the program, NYC Teenspace, on Nov. 15 took many in the city’s large mental health care community by surprise. In interviews, providers hailed the effort for having made mental health care available to teenagers who otherwise might not have had access.

But many also worried about whether the limited treatment Teenspace offers will meet the needs of teenagers who have more complex issues. And some questioned why the city was partnering with a for-profit provider like Talkspace, which is the target of a class-action lawsuit filed by a former client.

“Conceptually, this could be a game changer,” said C. Vaile Wright, senior director of the Office of Health Care Innovation at the American Psychological Association. “This could absolutely revolutionize access to care.”

But, she added, the “devil is in the details.” It remains unclear whether digital providers can “realistically meet capacity,” and set appropriate expectations around response times and informed consent procedures, she said, “so there aren’t unintended consequences if someone is disappointed or even harmed by this model of care.”

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