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Mental health clinic opens inside a Walmart in Texas

Other medical services are already available at Walmart, such as eye exams. But is a retail setting appropriate for mental health care?
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/ Source: TODAY

You can go to Walmart to buy toothpaste and shampoo, order glasses or fulfill a drug prescription. Now, some customers can also get therapy.

A new outpatient mental health clinic has opened inside a Walmart store in Carrollton, Texas, north of Dallas. People can walk in, call or make an appointment online to see a licensed mental health professional about problems such as anxiety, depression, grief, relationship troubles or the stresses of everyday living.

Beacon Health Options, a Boston-based behavioral health services company, is leasing space in the store and runs the clinic. It’s the first such practice Beacon has opened in a retail setting, the company announced in a news release this week, noting the location was chosen for its convenience. More than 10 million Texans live in an area considered to have a shortage of mental health care professionals, the company added.

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Executives said the goal is to offer mental health services to people in rural communities who might otherwise not get care.

Major depression is on the rise among Americans, especially young adults, recent research shows. An estimated one in five adults in the U.S. experiences some form of mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Many people don't get treatment.

“I think for behavioral health services, the time is due. It needs to be pulled out of the shadows. It needs to be mainstreamed,” Russell Petrella, president and CEO of Beacon Health Options, told TODAY.

“Having it available in a setting like this provides opportunities for people to reach out and get care in a comfortable place.”

Organizers said the on-site clinician will perform an assessment, determine what services a person might need and put together a treatment plan. If a patient can't get to the clinic, Beacon offers Skype sessions. The company’s in-store providers don't write prescriptions so if medication is needed, they can refer a patient to a psychiatrist.

The clinic inside the Walmart is not for people with serious mental health problems, but rather those who are still functioning well and need some help for common issues, Petrella said. Talk therapy can be offered on site.

The first assessment costs $140, then $110 per individual session. Beacon offers a sliding fee scale for people who don't have health insurance or can't afford the fees.

The company said it has seen interest from more than 500 people since the practice opened.

The question is: Will they get the appropriate help?

Walmart declined to comment, though a spokesperson told TODAY the new mental health clinic is strictly a Beacon Health Options initiative. Other medical services are already available at Walmart, such as eye exams. Some stores even feature dental clinics.

But some critics questioned whether this particular approach is the way to go.

“Certainly the opportunity to provide that care in the Walmarts of the world is not a bad thing — I'm all for breaking down the stigma of mental health,” said Ian Lang, executive director of the Brookline Center For Community Mental Health in Brookline, Massachusetts.

“Where I am differing with Beacon is that I think there are providers out there and I think that if we thought about how we can partner with existing providers to strengthen those systems, we would end up with a more sustainable solution to the access problem.”

Beacon Health Options hopes to expand the concept to other locations, but the company hasn’t decided where it will open the next outpatient mental health clinic.

"There's a lot of reluctance for seeking services because people feel funny about it. And by putting it in an environment like a retail store, it makes it more comfortable and more normalized," Petrella said.