Teletherapy seeing a surge as a result of pandemic lockdowns

May 1, 2020
Mark Spera

Longtime programs become new lifesavers in a time of crisis.

The once-taboo stigma of mental health continues to evolve with each generation. Recent research from Barna shows that 21% of millennials are currently engaged in psychotherapy and 42% of Americans have reportedly met with a therapist at some point in their lives. 

COVID-19 has undoubtedly impacted nearly every professional industry, including mental health care. Today, most providers are offering exclusive telehealth models for their clients. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services recently announced it would waive penalties for potential HIPAA violations during the pandemic. This “waiving” ideally eliminates excess barriers to treatment.

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COVID-19 and Mental Health

A recent article published in the Journal of The American Medical Association (JAMA) predicts that the effects of social distancing may result in a host of emotional problems ranging from depression and anxiety to substance use and domestic violence. The authors cited how other large-scale traumas almost always accompanied increases in mental health issues.

They noted the significance of peer connection in combating loneliness and isolation. They also indicated that, in this case, audio and video-based chats yielded more benefits than text messages or email. In other words, the more people “resemble” real-life dialogue, the more connected they tend to feel. 

That said, some mental health issues are inevitable. For example, people with preexisting mood or anxiety disorders may notice exacerbation in their usual symptoms. Additionally, compounding variables associated with unemployment, financial insecurity, severe changes in routine, and contracting the virus itself can all impact one’s well-being.

 

What This Means for Popular Teletherapy Platforms 

Teletherapy services have been around for over 20 years. However, amid statewide shelter-in-place orders, online platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace have surged in popularity over the last 30+ days. 

These platforms offer unique and attractive packages to clients, frequently more affordable than in-person care. For instance, for less than $75 per week, clients can have access to live sessions and unlimited messaging with a licensed psychotherapist. No need to get dressed. No need to drive to an office and sit in a waiting room. Clients technically can even withhold their true identities. They can sign up for the service, answer a simple questionnaire, and be “matched” to an appropriate therapist, often in less than 24 hours. By all means, the convenience is unmatchable.

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Moving from Traditional Therapy to Virtual Services

Statewide shutdown orders have led many independent therapists to dip their toes into teletherapy for the first time. Because of the Department of Health and Human Services’ move to waive HIPAA violations during COVID-19, brick-and-mortar providers are moving to platforms like Zoom and Doxy.me.

Although studies remain limited, research on teletherapy shows promising results. In 2018, The Journal of Anxiety Disorders published data indicating that internet-delivered CBT had comparable effectiveness in treating depression and anxiety as traditional, face-to-face services.

At this point, it is unclear if COVID-19 will trigger permanent changes in the mental health treatment landscape. But at least for now, teletherapy will be the main mode of delivering much needed services to patients confined to their homes. For many people, these services are, indeed, lifesavers.