Restrictions on social interactions as prompted by the pandemic of COVID-19 on American soil are being slowly lifted. As many governmental leaders are repeatedly emphasizing, this easing of social distancing guidelines doesn’t mean that life is returning to the way it was, before. People are still being encouraged to keep a good distance between themselves, wear facial masks when in public, and stay home whenever possible.
While these measures have been put into place to protect our physical health, there is another side of health that might not be faring so well from the arrangement. The longer that people are prohibited from engaging in activities that bring them income, exercise, and socialization, the more opportunity for mental health distress presents. Reports of an increase in mental health conditions are increasing along with the amount of time that people are required to stay indoors and refrain from normal activity.
Being mindful of the toll on mental health that social distancing guidelines are taking, mental health treatment has engaged in a massive shift toward making services readily available and easily accessible during this time. While telemental health services were already being practiced by a few providers, it was previously considered an exception to the norm. Now, telehealth services have been launched to the forefront, and are likely to continue to be popular as we shift into the new normal of practicing safe distancing during all of our interactions going forward.
Benefits of Telehealth
Studies examining the effectiveness of telehealth services for mental health have been increasing in publication for over a decade. The results have been so promising, that a new term has been created for it. Whereas the term “telehealth” can refer to any type of physical or mental support that is delivered from a distance, telemental health refers specifically to the remote receiving of psychiatric, therapeutic, and counseling services.
The increase in the availability of telemental health services means that those who might avoid receiving mental health support due to travel distance, mobility issues, or difficulty finding an appointment slot are now able to pick up a phone or log in to their computers, and have mental health support at their fingertips. Clinicians are also benefiting from the ease of telehealth access, which clears up their schedule from needing to commute to the office and await the arrival of their appointments. More space in a clinician’s schedule means more opportunity to support a larger number of clients and on a convenient timetable. Insurance companies have even joined the fray, with orders from some government leaders to adequately provide insurance reimbursement for distance therapy.
Telemental Health Mediums
This uptick in the provision of telemental health services has come at a great time. Thanks to the progress made toward extending technological equity to the masses, around 96% of Americans are in possession of a cellphone. These aren’t the clunky flip phones of the ’90s, either. Most phones now come equipped with talk, text, and video conferencing capabilities.
The oldest, and arguably most popular, form of telemental health support is provided through direct calls between a counselor and client. This medium provides the most security and privacy for a client, as there is no written exchange and the likelihood of a phone conversation being hijacked by information pirates is low. Advocates for client rights to privacy have been on board with the delivery of telemental health services in this fashion for quite some time.
Unlike the acceptance of phone sessions, the delivery of telehealth services over video chat has been an issue of contention. Regulatory boards have consistently argued over the benefits of providing this type of support versus the risk of lack of privacy that arises when using mediums that are not fully secured. The social distancing requirements during this pandemic of COVID-19 has forced regulators to ease up on their requirements for such security measures, meaning that this type of virtual face-to-face therapy method is set to take off in popularity.
While studies on the benefits of receiving mental health support through texting indicate that it is useful, staunch advocates for client and patient rights fear that there is too much risk of the exchanged information falling into the wrong hands. Phones which are left lying around can provide the opportunity for those other than the client to view messages, and lost or stolen phones can mean that the contents of a client’s session may be made available to those with nefarious intentions. Texting also makes it difficult for a clinician to be sure that he or she is consulting with the actual client during all exchanges. As with video conferencing, however, texting may be the most viable option for a person in need of mental health support during the upset of the pandemic. In these cases, it is required that client and counselor use specific, secured, texting applications for engaging in services.
Internet methods of providing mental health services are the true newcomers to the field. While certain types of treatment options – such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – have been determined to be well suited to an internet format, other types of therapy are still in an experimental phase. As noted by the American Psychological Association, some of the benefits of receiving online therapy include a potentially lower cost, ease of access, and its recognition of the comfort with technology that many people in the younger generations tend to have. Utilizers of online counseling can receive and complete digital assignments; post online journals for counselor review and feedback; and join virtual support groups toward finding relief in sharing of experiences. As with texting and video conference, it is important that the websites and apps being utilized by a mental health care provider are designed to protect your mental health rights and privacy. It is also important to ensure that your mental healthcare provider is officially authorized to provide services in the area in which you reside. Otherwise, such services are not legally protected, regulated, or compensated by insurance companies.