LISTEN: Teens want therapy. Are they getting it?

A high school daughter with long dark hair stands next to her mom with long light brown hair pose for a portrait with a bookshelf in the background.
Derry Oliver, 17, with her mother, Derry Oliver, pose for a portrait at a library in Brooklyn. (Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for Chalkbeat)

This week’s episode of P.S. Weekly looks at teen mental health, zooming in on one mother and daughter’s opposing views on therapy, and zooming out to look at New York City’s ambitious new effort to expand free mental health care to teens across the five boroughs.

The mother and daughter interviewed here were previously featured in Chalkbeat. You can read more about their journey here.

You can find out more about how to sign up for Teenspace here. And if you or someone you know needs access to immediate mental health care, you can call 988.

P.S. Weekly is available on major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Be sure to drop a review in your app or shoot an email to PSWeekly@chalkbeat.org. Tell us what you learned today or what you’re still wondering. We just might read your comment on a future episode.

P.S. Weekly is a collaboration between Chalkbeat and The Bell. Listen for new episodes Wednesdays this spring.


Read the full episode transcript below

HOST (Christian): Welcome to P.S. Weekly… the sound of the New York City school system.

HOST (Christian): PS Weekly is a collaboration between Chalkbeat New York and The Bell.

HOST (Christian): I’m your host this week, Christian Rojas Linares. I’m a senior at University Neighborhood High School in Manhattan.

Host (Christian): May happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month — and on today’s show, we’re focusing on what many are calling a youth mental health crisis.

Coming up, we have two stories — FIRST, we zoom in on a single family’s journey with therapy. THEN, one that zooms out to look at an ambitious new effort to expand mental health care to teens citywide.

HOST(Christian): But first!... The Chalkbeat news bulletin…

Chalkbeat:

I’m Amy Zimmer, from Chalkbeat. Here’s a recap of the week’s biggest education stories: Several immigrant students from the Cyberarts Studio Academy High School, say their principal pressured them to transfer out. Students and staff suspect the transfer was due to them potentially not graduating–AFTER they all failed an English Regents exam. If students don’t graduate this school year, it could harm the school’s four-year graduation rate — a key performance measure for schools.

As federal stimulus money dries up, New York City schools could see funding cut in half for restorative justice programs. Restorative justice initiatives prioritize peer mediation and other forms of conflict resolution over suspensions.

A group of lawmakers, parents, and school safety advocates are calling on Albany to reduce the number of annual lockdown drills from 4 to 2. The group says the drills are leading to mental health concerns. New York is among a handful of states that mandate four or more lockdown drills per year.

To stay up to date on local education news throughout the week, go to chalkbeat.org/newsletters and sign up for the New York Daily Roundup.

HOST (Christian): Thanks Chalkbeat!

HOST(Christian): Mental health has always been a serious issue, especially for teens. Think about it: there’s a whole genre of movies and TV shows about how hard middle and high school can be. Older generations sometimes minimize the challenges of youth: Oh, you’ll get through it. And for many of our parents, the subject continues to be taboo– especially for members of marginalized communities.

But the reality is that for my generation — Gen Z — mental health challenges are escalating. According to city data… between 2011 and 2021… there was a 42 percent increase in the number of high schoolers experiencing hopelessness… and a 33% increase in students who reported suicidal ideation.

There’s no single cause: pressure to do well in school… to fit in… STRESS: about our futures, the climate, and politics — all amplified by social media. Many of us are dealing with anxiety and/or depression, and don’t know where to turn for help.

HOST (Christian): So what do we do about it? Many times, we vent about our problems to our friends or family members, but sometimes what we really need is a licensed professional — whether that’s a therapist, clinical social worker, or counselor.

A new city initiative called TeenSpace is designed to help expand free access to care. We’ll hear about it directly from the city’s Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Ashwin Vasan. But first… our student reporter, Salma Baksh, has a story about a daughter, a mother, and how the generational divide can pose a barrier to getting therapy.

Here’s Salma.

Derry Oliver (MOM): Um I had to take the the A to the 4, but I got lost.

Narrator (Salma): I’m here at the PS Weekly studio in downtown Manhattan with Derry Elizabeth Oliver Nixon, her mom–ALSO named Derry Elizabeth Oliver, and the youngest member of the family, Desi–who will be turning 3 in June. You’ll be hearing her in the background.

Derry Oliver (MOM): It’s even more fun with a stroller… Say Hi Desi (baby cries)

Narrator (Salma): The younger Derry is a senior at Cobble Hill School for American Studies in Brooklyn. She’s about to graduate this year and plans to double-major in Law, Society, and Policy and Computer Science at Syracuse University, starting in the fall. She confidently tells me about her potential career options.

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): I don’t think it’s an unusual combination. Actually, I thought a lot about this where I wanted to get an understanding of cybersecurity– that’s what I plan to go into especially– but I also wanted to go into policy and I think it would’ve been a great idea to merge…, um, merge the gap between cybersecurity and public policy and be able to take technological policies.

Narrator (Salma): Hearing Derry speak– she sounds like she has it all figured out… But this wasn’t always the case… You’d never know that she has struggled with depression throughout childhood.

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER) I was dealing with a lot in school. And at home, where that was the first time she moved away from the family to get us ready to move to New York was dealing with bullying as well at school, and so it was weighing a lot on me mentally where I was dealing with like depression at like around nine, ten years old.

Derry Oliver (MOM) it was a lot of yelling, just being mad at the other students, but they were picking with her.

Narrator (Salma): This is Derry’s mom.

Derry Oliver (MOM)I don’t want to justify the lashing out, but like they say, don’t poke the bear.

Narrator (Salma): While Derry has known about therapy since age 10, it wasn’t until middle school that she actually considered getting it. Derry found out a friend of hers was speaking with a therapist. And the process seemed like something she’d want to try.

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): So for me, how I imagine therapy was where like not just be able to talk your feelings and that’s it, but more so, being able to like, use ways to, like, get to the bottom of like was like triggering certain things and so the moment I was told about therapy was when the school had to notify my grandmother, my mother about it.

Narrator (Salma): And what did they think? How did that conversation go?

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): The conversation, I will say didn’t go well at all. So my grandmother, my mother were actually upset with me because they feel as if, Oh, you are loved. You don’t, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Narrator (Salma): How did you react when she first brought up wanting to get therapy?

Derry Oliver (MOM): I was confused, concerned, taken aback, trying to go into Mom mode like you can talk to me. You know what’s wrong Is it me? What’s going on? Tell me

Derry Oliver (MOM): And I guess for me in my head, I’m like, she didn’t experience a lot of the things that I experienced. I dealt with a father that was an alcoholic and man me and him used to fight. Like we would go head to head. So for me, I guess that was my example of parenting.

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): it was also with the idea that teenagers or young kids can’t really express their emotions properly anyways. I feel as if it was like, Oh, you’re just dealing with like the emotional swings of like growing up. And for that reason, they probably thought therapy wasn’t needed.

Narrator (Salma): There was ANOTHER reason why Derry’s mom was cautious about letting her daughter do therapy…

Derry Oliver (MOM): I’ve tried it before, but they put me on a pill. Now you have this little pill to take to even you out, and now you’re in the bed all day like a zombie. There’s nothing you can do. You’re not even out now. You’re even more sad and what you were before you even went. Because that’s what happened to me. I was in the bed for days. I didn’t do much.

So I’m here for her getting therapy. Honestly, that’s not ever been an issue, it’s the person, you have to screen the person.

Derry Oliver (MOM): Derry, did you perceive the situation that way? That it wasn’t about therapy, it was about the therapist?

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER):Um, no, not really. She has explained that before, but it was also, like, sentiments like um what if you get like CPS involved? That’s a very big fear. Like in the black community,

Narrator (Salma): CPS – Child Protective Services.

Pause

Narrator (Salma): After a few years the two were able to reach a compromise for Derry to see a therapist... But, it came with a catch.

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): My mom was like physically there at the therapy session, so I wasn’t able to properly say everything I wanted to Where is immediately A Oh no, that didn’t happen or why do you see that? And so for that reason the therapist even said oh there’s nothing wrong. You know, it doesn’t seem like you really need like therapy and stuff. And it kind of turned into more of a therapy session for my mom between. So it became less about me and more about like, her. And so, like, I think afterwards we agreed that she also needed therapy too.

Narrator (Salma): Derry’s mom saw things differently.

Derry Oliver (MOM): I could tell she understood certain things my daughter was saying. I was I was also sitting in on the sessions, so it was benefiting me and her. I felt like we were actually communicating a little bit better when we saw her, Right? Wrong?

Narrator (Salma): Derry makes a face… she looks annoyed.

Derry Oliver (MOM): No, it was worse?

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): A little bit

Derry Oliver (MOM): It was worse?

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): Yeah.

Narrator (Salma): Um, Derry. Can you elaborate on why that wasn’t a good experience for you?

Derry Oliver (MOM): So for me, it just felt like I had a hard time giving, getting everything out because it just did it feel more like one on one? And so it’s harder to chime in as the person that like the therapy session was like for.

Derry Oliver (MOM): I didn’t know she was feeling that way during the sessions. You’re at this age, what do you have to say that’s so deep that I can’t hear? Like what is going on? And some things I feel like maybe I should hear, so I could either figure something out a little bit better and go from there versus you shutting me off and me not knowing what to do. Like I don’t have a blueprint or manual to how you are feeling or what is going on with you that day. So if I’m asking you as a mom, hey, you know, let me know what’s going on. You know, I wasn’t given that. So I’ve always tried to make sure that I have an ear for her.

Narrator (Salma): Derry’s mom reminds me of my own. She also wanted to be included in the conversation, but part of the reason I sought therapy in the first place was because I wanted to talk about HER. My mom probably sensed that, and feared what I had to say about her, scared that she wasn’t being a good mother to me.

Narrator (Salma): The two generations of women don’t agree on a lot when it comes to therapy. These kinds of disagreements can be really tough for many other teens who desperately want therapy, but also struggle to jump over the hurdle of parental consen.

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): Because of her, like fear or anxiety or like her trauma, like because of it is holding me back from having possibly, possibly a better experience. And so she never allowed us to take that leap of faith. And for that reason, it just made me very angry throughout the years where I wasn’t able to properly get help.

Narrator (Salma): The issue of parental consent is a somewhat murky area of state law. Minors can access mental health services and even medication in certain cases without parental consent — but only if the health care provider deems it medically necessary.

Salma: So where are you today with therapy?

Derry Oliver (DAUGHTER): Um, today with therapy, we’re still considering it. But now that, like I’m pushing closer to 18 and going to college, I decided myself that I plan on getting therapy on my own when I’m 18. The college I’m planning to go to which is Syracuse offers like mental health support services. And so I was planning to just take therapy there and just wait out the couple of months.

Narrator (Salma): I asked Derry’s mom how she would feel about therapy for her youngest daughter Desi in the future.

Derry Oliver (MOM):

When she gets older, you know, prayerfully, she won’t need it. But we all could use a little couch time here and there.

Narrator (Salma): Throughout the interview with Derry and her mom, what struck me most was how open they were — I don’t know if the conversation changed Derry’s mom’s attitude toward therapy, but I do know that the pair are doing something that many children and parents are not doing when it comes to mental health: Talking about it. And that… feels like a start.

Narrator (Salma): Reporting for PS Weekly, I’m Salma Baksh.

HOST (Christian): Thank you, Salma. Derry and her mom were featured in a Chalkbeat story about teen mental health earlier this spring. You can find the link to that story in the show notes.

HOST (Christian): We’ll be back, after a short break…

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HOST (Christian): The generational divide over mental health care won’t be solved overnight... But New York City took a big step forward last November to make access to therapy free and simple for students. It launched TeenSpace. While students under 18 still need parental consent to participate, it’s accessible anywhere online.

But…is TeenSpace… working?

P.S. Weekly reporter Shoaa Khan has the story.

Narrator (Shoaa): I’m here with my fellow student reporter, Dorothy Ha, to figure out how to sign up for TeenSpace, a branch of the mental healthcare provider TalkSpace only for 13-17-year-olds.

Dorothy: “Alright so it’s been like 10 minutes since I finished signing up and TalkSpace just sent me an email, it says, we’re thrilled to introduce you to your provider, and I’ve already been matched with a therapist

Narrator (Shoaa): Through a partnership with the city, TeenSpace is being offered for free to all New York City teens. All they have to do is register through the app or website and get parental consent. Then, the teen is matched with an online therapist within minutes or hours.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan: We are seeing that the majority of young people coming onto the platform are interested in talking about anxiety or depression.

Narrator (Shoaa): This is Dr. Ashwin Vasan. He’s the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the agency that manages TeenSpace.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan: But we are also seeing a good trend of young people using it proactively for things like self-improvement. For example, improving concentration in school, improving relationship management, self-actualization, self-realization tips.

Narrator (Shoaa): TeenSpace is a big deal because, traditionally, getting access to therapy as a teenager… isn’t easy.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan: The system is very confusing. It’s even confusing for me. And I’m a physician and someone who’s worked in this space for more than 2 decades, and it’s a very confusing front door. And as the parent of small children, and having had to seek mental health support for them at different times. It’s really confusing. And so I and we at the city wanted to find a way to take some of the guesswork out of asking for help and getting it.

Narrator (Shoaa): There’s also another problem.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan: We have a massive mismatch and a gap between the supply and demand, especially coming out of Covid where demand has increased. But we don’t have a supply of mental health workers that are ready to take care of all of our needs, especially the needs of young people and teenagers, which is the group with the fastest rising mental health needs in the in the country and in the world. So we can’t all of a sudden create a workforce that doesn’t exist. But what we can do is use technology to make the workforce more accessible.

Narrator (Shoaa): And Dr. Vasan says students of a variety of backgrounds have expressed interest in the program—With the majority of Teenspace users being African American or Latino. These young people are also coming from neighborhoods with the lowest access to care.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan: And that’s in an extremely positive trend, because young people that face intersecting, you know, communities and environments where they face violence and trauma and social and economic stressors that impact mental health, these are exactly where we want team space to be used the most, but make no mistake, it’s open to everyone.

Narrator (Shoaa): And… It seems to be working. Since its launch last November, more than SIX THOUSAND students have signed up for Teen Space. And Dr. Vasan said that every single teenager who has signed up–has been assigned to a therapist within 24 hours.

Shoaa: So, it’s been two weeks since youve signed up for TeenSpace, so what’s

happened since then?

Dorothy: So since I sent the initial message, Chad, my assigned teen space therapist, shot me a text back, and he said he’s willing to talk about whatever issues that have been on my mind lately. To be honest, I was really preoccupied with things over the past two weeks, so I didn’t have the chance to message him back. And so he messaged me again and he said just to say, like, hey, I’m touching base. I just wanted to know how you’re doing, and you could text me back whenever you feel comfortable, which I appreciated.

Narrator (Shoaa): Once they’re matched, users can message their therapist anytime and schedule up to one video therapy session per month. I would think talking to a therapist online could be rather… impersonal? The way Dorothy experienced. Nerve-wracking, even… Does being remote make it more difficult to establish a relationship?

I asked Dr. Jill Daino about this. She’s one of the TeenSpace therapists.

Jill Daino: For some clients being able to be comfortable in their own space, actually frees them up in a different way versus having to come to someone’s office where they might be a little more on edge. Right? It really depends on the person,

Narrator (Shoaa): Dorothy felt a little weird about communicating remotely.

Dorothy: I’m not really used to the idea of online therapy yet. His texts honestly felt really formal, almost like an email. And when I was responding to him, I felt the need to be formal as well and type it as if I were writing an email to like a colleague or a teacher or something. So I feel like it’s definitely harder to establish that personal connection over a laptop or a screen

Narrator (Shoaa): In any case, though, Dr. Daino also says doing it online also saves young people time.

Jill Daino: If you think about you have a 45-minute to an hour appointment. Now you’ve got to get on the subway, get to the appointment, get back to class, or to a commitment that you have, or an after-school job, or help out at home, how are you doing all of that? So one of the things that’s amazing about receiving virtual care is it takes those barriers down and that level of stress down for people. So being able to build that rapport and get to know someone. They’re not. Oh, my God, I can’t get there! How am I gonna do this? And it doesn’t fit into my life? Well, I just won’t go

Narrator (Shoaa): And if you’re wondering whether your information is safe–don’t worry. Dr. Vasan said all communication between the therapist and the teenager is encrypted, and it’s illegal for our private information to be shared with anyone, even parents, unless it is absolutely needed.

Narrator (Shoaa): Overall, it seems like TeenSpace is a really helpful place to start for high schoolers in search of mental health care… That is if you have parental consent.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan: Yeah, sadly. I mean, that’s the law. It’s federal law. It’s state law. And so it as minors, it’s impossible to get healthcare of any kind, except for some few exceptions.

Narrator (Shoaa): If a teen user turns 18, they can continue free sessions until June 30th with their therapist. Then, if they want to continue, they have to pay for sessions through their insurance or out of pocket.

Narrator (Shoaa): TeenSpace is a great start to providing New York City students with free mental health care services. Privately. Dr. Vasan and the Department of Health have done an applause-worthy job of listening to the voices in need of help and providing a solution.

Dr. Ashwin Vasan: I want all parents to get out of the way and Just let them try. It really is healing and important to allow your kids the Independence to find their way. My hope for the future is that all 440,000 teenagers ages 13 to 17 in New York end up using this at some point or another, and that we can break down every wall possible to accessing mental health care when you need it.

Narrator (Shoaa): While working on this story, my P.S. Weekly producers and I asked our friends at school if they’d heard about TeenSpace–and many hadn’t! SO… to check it out for yourself, go to Talkspace.com/NYC. That link is also in our show notes.

Narrator (Shoaa): Reporting for PS Weekly, this is Shoaa Khan.

HOST (Christian): Thank you, Shoaa.

HOST (Christian): If you or someone you know needs access to immediate mental health care, you can always call 9-8-8.

Because of privacy reasons, the Health Department wasn’t able to connect us with TeenSpace users. But we are curious to hear from more teens about their experiences using TeenSpace or accessing therapy generally. Did Derry’s experience resonate with you? If you’ve got a story you’d like to share, reach out to us at PSWeekly@chalkbeat.org.

That’s our show for today! But PS… we’re back next week with an episode about freedom of speech in schools…

Upcoming Episode Preview CLIP: “We have seen quite a few instances in which there were really big procedural violations and it concerns us. The student’s due process rights and First Amendment rights are not being validated.”

HOST: Until then… class dismissed!

CREDITS

HOST (Christian): PS Weekly is a collaboration between The Bell and Chalkbeat, made possible by generous support from The Pinkerton Foundation, The Summerfield Foundation, FJC, and Hindenburg Systems.

This episode was hosted by me, Christian Rojas Linares.

Producers for this episode were: Salma Baksh and Shoaa Khan, with reporting help from Chalkbeat reporter Mike Elsen Rooney.

Our marketing lead this week was Tanvir Kaur.

Our executive producer for the show is JoAnn DeLuna.

Executive editors are Amy Zimmer AND Taylor McGraw.

Additional production and reporting support was provided by Sabrina DuQuesnay, Mira Gordon, and our friends at Chalkbeat.

Special thanks to our interns Miriam Galicia AND Makenna Turner.

And also thanks to our amazing team of volunteer mentors.

Music from Blue Dot Sessions.

And, the jingle you heard at the beginning of this episode was created by the one and only: [Erica Huang]

Thanks for tuning in! See you next time!

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