Creative arts therapists can help solve NY’s mental health crisis, if Gov. Hochul will let us

Josh Millrod, licensed creative arts therapist, reporting for duty — along with roughly 2,000 colleagues also ready and able to do their part in solving New York’s mental health crisis. That is, if you’ll have us, Gov. Hochul.

In this year’s State of the State address, Gov. Kathy Hochul addressed how dire things have gotten in New York. We face unprecedented rates of anxiety, depression and trauma, worsening clinician shortages, and an affordability crisis driven by insurance companies picking and choosing what services they will cover and which clinicians can provide them.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 30, Hochul signed a landmark bill to expand mental health coverage but only after excluding over 2,000 licensed psychotherapists.

This vital piece of legislation, years in the making, requires insurance companies to cover outpatient services provided by licensed mental health practitioners — including mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, psychoanalysts, and, if she had not removed us from its provisions, creative arts therapists. Creative arts therapists would have represented more than 14% of this expansion until we were axed in the wee hours of 2022.

Unfortunately, this is just another example of creative arts therapists being left out of Albany’s efforts to increase access and affordability by expanding who can provide the diagnoses that patients need to get services and what licenses are covered by Medicaid.

Licensed creative arts therapists are psychotherapists who integrate music, art, dance and movement, drama, and poetry into their clinical work. We undergo rigorous training in both our creative modality and verbal psychotherapy. To qualify for my license, I earned a master’s degree at NYU including a yearlong internship at Bellevue Hospital working with some of New York’s neediest, obtained national board certification as a music therapist, and completed 1,500 hours of supervised clinical work on Rikers Island, where I developed a trauma-informed hip-hop therapy program for adolescent detainees. In the last six years, I’ve taken over 125 hours of postgraduate psychotherapy training to maintain my license. Still, Albany won’t mandate that insurance companies cover my services or allow me to provide diagnoses for patients who need them to access care.

At the same time Hochul touts Albany’s renewed commitment to tackling our mental health crisis, she unnecessarily limited the number of clinicians available to New Yorkers. Sadly, the clinicians she excluded are often the ones best-suited to serving patients averse or unresponsive to other forms of therapy. This last-minute exclusion means that my patients remain at the whims of their insurance companies. If they change jobs, switch plans, or their current insurer shifts rules, they risk losing their mental health care.

I’ve seen firsthand how creative arts therapy can change lives. At Rikers Island, I helped adolescent detainees produce hundreds of songs telling the stories of their pain, trauma, resilience, and hope. These weren’t music lessons; they were trauma therapy sessions that used music as a safe container for the overwhelming pain and suffering that these young men held in their minds and bodies. Now, in my private practice, many clients come to me because other therapies haven’t worked or because their traumatic pasts make it hard to talk without getting overwhelmed.

I know little is simple in Albany, but this is straightforward. Extending creative arts therapists the same mandates and privileges granted to our fellow mental health practitioners would make 2,000 additional qualified clinicians available to New Yorkers in need.

We’re ready when you are, Governor.

This guest essay reflects the views of Josh Millrod, a licensed creative arts therapist and board-certified music therapist in private practice on Long Island.

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