Mental Health Matters: How Telehealth is Expanding Mental Health Access
By Lily Winston and Alan Neushwander
We live in a turbulent time where mental health is concerned. On the one hand, there’s an argument to be made that there are more stress factors on people today than at any other time in recent history. The age of social media is widely credited with having heightened anxieties and exposed millions to potentially problematic social situations. And recently, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has entered the equation. As we wrote in the post ‘Managing Stress and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic’, there are many people who have struggled just trying to cope with all the changes and difficulties.
On the other hand, there is also more awareness and opportunity when it comes to managing mental health difficulties. For one thing, self-care is — for lack of a better word — trendy. How this got to be the case is difficult to say. An NPR article on millennial interest in self-care suggests that the internet may be partially responsible, as it has provided a generation with a way to search for care strategies and methods. Others have credited social media specifically for linking people up with others who may be struggling or seeking ways to care for themselves. Whatever the case, there is a focus on wellness today that simply wasn’t present a decade ago — even if self-care isn’t always the right approach.
Another positive factor is increased access to caregivers, which can be attributed in part to the online higher education opportunities that have emerged in recent years. People pursuing careers in therapy and psychology can now earn the necessary credentials online. Physicians’ assistants can conduct much of their training in the same way. And an overview of Maryville University’s RN-to BSN online degree points to numerous leadership and management roles in nursing that people can pursue through internet classes. The graduates emerging through these opportunities expand the pool of professionals from whom individuals struggling with mental health can seek care.
On the subject of seeking care, though, another major factor has emerged in the form of telehealth. While the basic concept of telehealth is not entirely new, it has lately begun to play a far bigger role in mental health. Specifically, it has helped to expand access to mental health care in numerous ways.
Illuminating Promising Data
The growing emphasis on telehealth for mental health came about because of the pandemic. Many people who were already seeing doctors, nurses, or therapists for their mental health needs suddenly faced a need to do so through virtual means. Additionally, those who faced new mental health concerns due to the stress of the pandemic often had no option but to pursue help through telehealth in the first place.
Throughout 2020 there were questions about how helpful telehealth could really be in these cases. Many jumped to the conclusion that the quality of care might somehow be inferior. Studies and data, however, have indicated the opposite. As a University of Florida psychologist’s take on this data suggested, online therapy actually works just as well as in-person care. The data came from some 9,000 clients studied, and showed that the two forms of care are in fact equal. So, in a sense, we can say that the growing emphasis on telehealth has had a compounding effect. More people who have used telehealth have illuminated this data, which in turn should lead to more people still accepting this kind of care.
Expanding Interest in Care
Over the course of the pandemic, there have also been surveys conducted and articles written that suggest more people are willing to seek mental health care if they are able to do so remotely. There have long been problems with reluctance to seek care — whether due to fear or uncertainty, social stigmas, or anything else of the sort. But early trends suggest that if people have the ability to seek mental health care from the comfort of their own homes, they may be more likely to do so. Thus, whether it is just a starting point or the beginning of a long-term arrangement, telehealth appears to be expanding mental health access in a fairly direct manner.
Expanding Coverage for Care
The surge in telehealth for people seeking mental health care has also led to early efforts to expand coverage for the practice. Per a MedCity News infographic on states’ coverage, there are numerous states that have “enacted changes to make it easier for people to access mental health services” remotely. This is being done specifically because of the pandemic, but there is hope that it establishes a sort of virtual mental health care infrastructure that endures.
All of these are extremely positive developments. Already, the “trendy” nature of self-care and the gradually expanding availability of professionals in position to offer care are making mental health more of a focal point in modern society. Expanding options via telehealth make for a significant and productive next step.
West Michigan Community Mental Health has long been at the forefront of telehealth having provided video appointments for psychiatric medication services for many years. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, made us look at providing care for all our consumers in a modified way. In March 2020, we started providing telephone and video appointments for therapy sessions and other clinical services. Between March and December 2020, we provided 35,660 appointments over phone and video. We will continue to offer telehealth options in an effort to deliver care in the safest manner possible. For those who prefer face-to-face appointments, our offices in Mason, Lake and Oceana counties remain open.
Lily Winston is a guest columnist for West Michigan Community Mental Health. Alan Neushwander serves as Director of Public Relations and Customer Service at West Michigan CMH. He may be reached at (231) 843-5440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.