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Last updated: Aug 05, 2021
6 min read

The importance of telehealth for mental health care

There’s a widespread shortage of mental health care across the U.S. In many parts of the country, there aren’t enough providers. Even where people have enough access to clinics and private practices, care is often inconvenient, limited, and potentially embarrassing. Telehealth for mental health care is critical for helping the people who need it most.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Your mental wellbeing is central to living a fulfilling life. It’s nearly impossible to appreciate each moment when you’re burdened by feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, constant worry, guilt, or a sense of profound sadness. 

On top of feelings of depression and anxiety, many people have the added burden of struggling to get access to the mental health care they so badly need. 

The good news? Telehealth is on the rise and is making it easier than ever to get affordable mental health care wherever you are. It’s a game changer for many people who’ve been suffering for far too long. 

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How COVID-19 changed the landscape of care

There’s no question the COVID-19 pandemic has done tremendous damage to countless millions of people. The combined effects of isolation, financial distress and uncertainty, illness, and the devastating losses of friends and loved ones mean more Americans than ever are suffering from depression and anxiety (Czeisler, 2020). 

Though it can’t take away from the pain and suffering of the pandemic, one positive effect of COVID-19 is the explosion of telehealth usage in many areas of medicine, including mental health. 

Telehealth has allowed people to work with their healthcare providers from the safety of their homes for many conditions. Hospitals, clinics, and urgent cares around the country quickly adapted to treating patients from a distance, and the uptake has been higher than most could have imagined. One study of over 36 million people showed that telehealth visits increased from 0.3% to 23.6% of all medical contacts, with behavioral health leading the way (Weiner, 2021). Behavioral health looks at the impact of someone’s behaviors on physical and mental health.

While there are situations when telehealth is not the best approach (e.g., surgery or complex testing), telehealth is the ideal method to fill the gaps in mental health services.

How common are depression and anxiety?

Depression and anxiety are more common than you might think. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 7% of U.S. adults meet the criteria for major depressive disorder (MDD) in a given year, while over 30% will experience any anxiety disorder at some point in their lives (NIMH, 2019; NIMH, 2017). 

Both of these conditions increase the risk of suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Astonishingly, it’s the second leading cause in people ages 14–34 (CDC, 2017). While depression is a major risk factor for suicide, anxiety also likely increases the risk (Bentley, 2016).

But suicide is only the worst outcome of these illnesses. For most people who have depression or anxiety, living with them is a constant strain on their professional and personal lives (Brenes, 2007). People with depression miss more work and are less productive while at work than those without depression (Greenberg, 2014). Having both anxiety and depression (a common combination) puts people at higher risk of disability and work absenteeism (Hendriks, 2015).

Beyond work troubles, anxiety and depression can damage some of the most important parts of living a rich and fulfilling life—namely, relationships and social functioning (Saris, 2017; Halford, 1999). 

In short, depression and anxiety are keeping millions of Americans from enjoying life the way they should—enjoying their work, the company of loved ones, and just living in the present moment, the cardinal feature of mindfulness.

3 ways telehealth can help with mental wellbeing

Telehealth has been used in many settings, including primary care, urgent care, specialty care, emergency departments, and remote access hospitals for critical care. Yet, when it comes to mental health, some unique features are especially promising.

1. Reduces stigma

People are not embarrassed by their need to see a cardiologist or nephrologist or to check on their diabetes or asthma. Unfortunately, mental health care can still be viewed by some as a “weakness of the mind” or a “failure of the will.” Fortunately, this is changing, yet people remain hesitant to visit a therapist or psychiatrist. While you can always avoid the subject when talking to friends and family, there’s still no way to avoid other people in your therapist’s waiting room. 

Using telehealth, qualified professionals deliver mental health care to patients in the comfort of their homes with the ease of a smartphone or desktop computer. This simple and private approach to care removes many people’s stigma and discomfort when seeking mental health care.

Telemedicine eliminates the barriers to reaching professionals who can help people return to the lives they wish to lead. This might be one of the most critical contributions telemedicine can make to mental health care.

2. Improves access

The U.S. has a shortage of psychiatrists and psychotherapists (Health Resources and Services Administration, 2016). Moreover, they are concentrated in certain areas, making the shortage even more dire in many parts of the country. Telehealth mitigates geographic barriers to care. As long as you have a device and internet connection, you can talk to a qualified healthcare provider wherever you are. 

Access is also not simply about geography. Time for travel, transportation, and the ability to obtain and afford childcare are challenges even in places with plentiful psychiatrists and mental health professionals. The ability to connect to a physician or mental health provider from home overcomes all these obstacles. 

3. Helps you stay connected

One of the benefits of telehealth is the ability to stay more connected to your healthcare provider between visits. In traditional brick-and-mortar settings, people usually talk to their providers during appointments but have no support in between appointments. Telehealth platforms provide the option for much more frequent check-ins, whether through phone or video visits, messaging between visits, or a mixture. 

If you’re having a hard time in between appointments, messaging your healthcare provider might help you get through a tough time without having to schedule an appointment and travel into an office. Your provider can also more easily include breathing and meditation exercises, educational resources, and other homework into your treatment journey. These options deliver a much more continuous treatment experience than only seeing your provider in person monthly or weekly. Telehealth’s potential for mental health care

The surge in telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the tip of the iceberg for how telehealth can improve mental health care across the U.S. We’re likely to see increasing opportunities for access to affordable and convenient care, helping countless people get the support they need. What impact will this have on our society as a whole? Only time will tell.

References

  1. Bentley, K. H., Franklin, J. C., Ribeiro, J. D., Kleiman, E. M., Fox, K. R., & Nock, M. K. (2016). Anxiety and its disorders as risk factors for suicidal thoughts and behaviors: A meta-analytic review. Clinical Psychology Review, 43, 30–46. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2015.11.008. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4771521/
  2. Brenes G. A. (2007). Anxiety, depression, and quality of life in primary care patients. Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 9(6), 437–443. doi: 10.4088/pcc.v09n0606. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2139931/
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). 10 leading causes of death by age group, United States – 2017. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/pdf/leading_causes_of_death_by_age_group_2017-508.pdf
  4. Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. (2020). Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report; 69:1049–1057. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm
  5. Greenberg, P. E., Fournier, A. A., Sisitsky, T., Pike, C. T., & Kessler, R. C. (2015). The economic burden of adults with major depressive disorder in the United States (2005 and 2010). The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 76(2), 155–162. doi: 10.4088/JCP.14m09298. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25742202/
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  7. Health Resources and Services Administration. (2016). National projections of supply and demand for selected behavioral health practitioners: 2013-2025. National Center for Health Workforce Analysis. Retrieved from https://bhw.hrsa.gov/sites/default/files/bureau-health-workforce/data-research/behavioral-health-2013-2025.pdf
  8. Hendriks SM, Spijker J, Licht CMM, Hardeveld F, de Graaf R, Batelaan NM, et al. (2015). Long-term work disability and absenteeism in anxiety and depressive disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders, 178: 121-130. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2015.03.004. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165032715001317
  9. National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Any anxiety disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder
  10. National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Major depression. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression
  11. Saris IMJ, Aghajani M, van der Werff SJA, van der Wee NJA, Penninx BWJH. (2017). Social functioning in patients with depressive and anxiety disorders. Acta Psychiatria Scandinavica; 136(4): 352-361. doi: 10.1111/acps.12774. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/acps.12774
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