Often, technology advances more rapidly than do our approaches to effective treatment. While many therapists and medical practitioners have been promoting the benefits of telehealth treatment for some time, it is only during this current tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic that regulation boards are having to take a serious look at it as a viable option. These gatekeepers of acceptable practice have been busy adapting their explicit directives to providers in order to fast-track the ability to provide needed services through remote sessions.
What this means is that though the rapid transmission rate and serious health risks associated with COVID-19 has temporarily halted the practice of face-to-face sessions, this doesn’t mean that people can’t receive their mental health support. One of the positive outcomes of this tragedy is that the healthcare industry has been prompted to further expand the availability of services to include committed support for distance treatment. The primary way that this convenient form of support is offered is through teletherapy.
What is Teletherapy?
While we most often think of the words “telephone” and “television” when hearing this prefix, the Greek Greek root word “tele” actually means “far.” Thus, teletherapy refers to any therapy which is delivered from a distance. Most often, teletherapy refers to mental health services. Sessions with a trained mental health therapist can be conducted through phone, video chat, and written correspondence. It is also referred to as telepsychiatry, telepsychology, and telemental health (TMH).
If you have ever received an encouraging phone call from a friend, received some words of insight through a letter in the mail, or participated in an online support group, you have already been experiencing forms of teletherapy. The only real difference between these types of supportive distance interactions and official teletherapy is that a trained therapist has a wealth of specific education and experience toward helping you to reach your mental health goals.
Benefits of Teletherapy
National data has shown that over 50 percent of those who struggle with a mental health issue lack regular access to treatment. This is particularly true for those who live in remote or rural areas, those who lack means of transportation, and those who are without adequate health insurance coverage. These also include cases where an individual is simply too busy to carve out the regular time necessary to meet with a therapist on a regular basis.
Teletherapy can alleviate three of those four barriers to treatment. It can allow for sessions to take place from the comfort of your home, meaning that no long commutes or struggles to obtain transportation are necessary. Eliminating the lack of need to travel to an office means that a client has more time to spend toward participating in sessions, and the convenience for the therapist often means that there are more time slots available to offer.
The remaining barrier to receiving treatment – access to applicable health care insurance – is also being addressed in the wake of this current pandemic. Due to social distancing guidelines prohibiting many in-person activities, governmental bodies have been rapidly instituting requirements for insurance companies to provide coverage for telehealth services. Insurance companies who were formerly reluctant to allow patients and clients to participate in the benefits of telehealth are being pushed to rethink their approach.
What Took So Long For This to Catch On?
Though it may be hard to imagine, there was a recent time period where none of this current technology existed. Mental health support began to be recognized as an important part of life during the early 20th century, with the emergence of psychotherapy. Telephones were just becoming popular at that time, and the invention of cellphones and internet access was still many years away.
Technology has advanced very rapidly over the past few decades. As quite often occurs in fields which are strictly regulated, practice and procedure guidelines lagged behind. While some brave pioneers forged ahead with the integration of new technology into mental health practices, many found themselves waiting behind the red tape of regulation.
The regulations which were put into place for guiding mental health practitioners tended to center on the fact that clients would come into an office to see their therapist. Consents for treatment required a penned signature, and confidentiality protections meant that a therapist could not go around talking about a client with others in the community. These types of best practice guidelines served our local communities well for over a hundred years.
The tragedy of the widespread COVID-19 pandemic has forced regulators to actively endorse avenues of support for treatment which can be delivered in a way that ensures the physical safety of those being served. During this time that in-office sessions are discouraged – and even prohibited – in many states, the boards understand that people with mental health issues still need to receive support. Over the past several weeks of social distancing guidelines being in place, regulatory agencies have been extremely busy with consulting, discussing, and publishing new guidelines to aid therapists in delivering therapy services through phone, video, and internet platforms. The technology for robust, remote, support has been in place for many years. The pandemic has pushed people to take a serious look at it.
Argument Against Teletherapy
One of the major deterrents to the progress of launching widespread teletherapy was the idea that effective treatment requires face-to-face interaction. Many people are familiar with the popular icon of therapy taking place from a couch in the psychiatrist’s office, and it is true that this was originally how psychotherapy took place. Eventually, the couch evolved into a sitting in a chair, but the concept has remained largely unchanged for a century.
As technology options increased, and as more and more therapists began to observe that people were both seeking – and responding to – treatment which was provided through nontraditional means, some experts in the field got together to determine whether their observations of the effectiveness of telehealth were valid. Their analyzed results confirmed what they had been noting in their own clients: telemental health is as effective, and sometimes more effective than in-person therapy sessions.