Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Cassandra Fountaine.

Like so many others, I’ve struggled to find mental healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of depressive or anxiety disorder during the pandemic, up from 1 in 10 in 2019.

And a New York Times article reveals what many have likely suspected: that mental health professionals have had a hard time getting people the help they need since the surge.

After losing one therapist as a result of an insurance change, losing another due to countertransference issues (my concerns triggered my therapist’s concerns, causing her to transfer her emotions onto me), and adding myself to several practices’ wait lists to no avail, I was looking for an alternative.

I spent some time searching the web for something different: A support group? A counselor in training who could possibly see me? On a whim, I Googled “mental health gym” in hopes that such a thing existed.

I was happily surprised to learn that, indeed, it did! I knew I had to try one.

So, what is a mental health gym anyway? It’s pretty much what it sounds like: a place to go to exercise your mind.

More specifically, depending on the “gym” — and it’s still a fairly new phenomenon, so there aren’t a ton out there — it’s a facility that offers classes, support sessions, exercises, or treatments designed to help people with their mental wellness.

Some take place in a physical space; some have live, virtual sessions for now with the intention of transitioning to in-person when it feels safer to do; and others feature prerecorded material.

While they are particularly helpful in the face of the pandemic, most gyms were founded before it began, in the last 5 or so years. And they are so well timed. This relatively new concept is ripe for the current moment, in which athletes, celebrities, and regular folks alike are shining a light on the importance of mental healthcare.

“I think that mental health gyms at the beginning were seen as a competitor to an individual therapist,” said Jennifer Silvershein Teplin, LCSW, founder and clinical director of Manhattan Wellness, “but I think people are now realizing that it can work in tandem.”

She sees the gyms as especially useful for “someone who’s been in individual therapy, but wants a little more.”

Dr. Vaneeta Sandhu, licensed clinical psychologist and head of emotional fitness at mental health gym Coa, agrees that the two modalities work well hand in hand. That’s why Coa offers both classes and therapy matchmaking.

“Our classes teach core skills, core foundations for emotional fitness that are needed for everyday mental health,” she said. “But they’re not a replacement for one-on-one therapy.”

I tried out Coa to see for myself. There were a lot of things I appreciated about it.

I was genuinely inspired after an hour-long live Q&A class on friendship. I not only left with solid advice (that I used the next day when I texted friends whom I always lament not seeing but never reach out to), but also found comfort in knowing I was one of 49 participants wrestling with how to be a better friend.

I also started an 8-week series focusing on emotional fitness.

Though I ultimately felt like it might be more of a time commitment than I have room for right now, I liked how earnest and sincere people were in the breakout groups that were part of the class and how supported I felt in them. Just describing out loud to someone other than my partner some of the time balancing issues I’ve been wrestling with as a new-ish mom felt pretty fantastic.

At the end of the day, though, I left feeling like I still wanted to find a therapist.

“Individual in-person therapy is the… gold standard of what mental healthcare looks like because it can be personalized,” said Silvershein Teplin. “You can hear what someone’s saying, but also see what they’re going through.”

One of the biggest pluses I ended up finding about mental health gyms was the flexibility they offer.

While 85-minute classes on a weeknight starting at 8 p.m. (when my bedtime goal is 10 p.m.!) don’t work for me at the moment, a 1-hour drop-in class every month or an occasional 3-week series on a relevant topic suits me just fine. In fact, I will definitely continue to seek classes like these out.

Despite the novel quality of mental health gyms, there are enough options out there for many people to find one that’s right for them.

Some gyms, like YourLife, offer virtual group support classes, as well as private in-person sessions that combine motivational coaching with physical training, proving what we know to be true about physical exercise impacting our mental wellness.

Others, like Coa, offer topic-specific, therapist-led group classes rooted in research, as well as therapy matchmaking.

Real, which doesn’t bill itself as a gym technically but checks all the boxes otherwise, does something similar to Coa (minus the therapy part), but with largely prerecorded audio and a membership model. Inception is a physical space where you (and Charlamagne Tha God) can relax and recharge.

“What works for one person doesn’t work for another,” said Silvershein Teplin. “It’s amazing for the consumer that they can now pick and choose what commitment level, what price point, and really cater their mental health care to what they think they need exactly.”

Some needs, though, are universal.

“People are looking for solutions that are modern and accessible,” said Sandhu. She believes that stigma and cost are two big reasons why people do not seek mental health support sooner — or at all.

But mental health gyms, with their relatively affordable price points — classes go for $30 each, for instance, versus the cost of therapy, which can be about $100 to $200 per session — can help make mental health aid more widely available to a larger audience.

Silvershein Teplin also explained that they can be a great place to start for those who aren’t yet ready for the intimacy of individual therapy.

“How can we expect someone who’s never been in therapy to want to walk into a room with a stranger just to spill their guts?” she asked. “It’s a great way to scratch the surface and start to get you thinking a little more about what you’re experiencing.”

She believes that going to therapy is, for many, like “having a little black dress at this point.” But as Sandhu mentioned, the stigma for seeking mental health help still remains.

For those who fear being judged or not supported, it can be easier and more socially acceptable to admit you’re taking a class for self-care purposes rather than seeking out a doctor because you “need help.”

Mental health gyms make it fairly easy to be proactive about your health, too. You don’t have to find a therapist, check to see if they take your insurance, and make sure you’re a good match for one another.

You can just sign up for a class on a whim and instantly be connected to a community of people with similar goals. Plus, mental health gyms are a place to improve your responses to stress and learn core coping skills before you’re in crisis.

“I always say to people, ‘The best time to come to therapy is when you’re doing great,’” said Silvershein Teplin. That way, when something happens, you’ve already put in the work, rather than having to scramble to gain new skills while in crisis.

“Allowing people to realize that taking care of their mental health is preventative rather than reactionary, I think is huge,” she said. “And I think that the sooner someone starts to care about their mental health, the less severe their challenges will be in the future.”

As powerful as these gyms have the potential to be, Silvershein Teplin believes that they can be somewhat limiting.

“I could say I’m anxious and that could mean my thoughts are racing; you could say you’re anxious and that could mean you’re feeling very down,” she said. “I think that humans are so complex that I don’t know that anything besides a human sitting there individually could fully comprehend [one’s emotions].”

Personally, it made me realize that one-on-one therapy, even if it’s hard to come by right now, is still my preferred mental health tool.

But I do appreciate what mental health gyms do well, which is foster community and offer proactive solutions on interesting topics. Plus, I’m glad to have walked away with a new set of tools to add to my toolkit.

Sandhu sees these gyms — along with the other alternative solutions that have been popping up, like meditation and therapy apps and the increased conversation in the public sphere around getting help — as nothing short of a mental health revolution.

“You and I will look back 10 years from now and wonder how we went so long without prioritizing mental health proactively,” she said.

I hope she’s right.