A Beacon of Hope for Americans Struggling with Mental Illness: Telehealth
By Nora Bargfrede, RN, BSN, CCM
Manager, Disability Claims Operations, Group Insurance
The unexpected tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic has propelled telehealth utilization and led to an unintentional large-scale study into the effectiveness of telehealth.
We are seeing a substantial population of patients that can be clinically managed using telehealth without impact to quality of care, health, and safety.1 Medical professionals are also recognizing and stepping up to support the use of telehealth.2 Its efficacy in treating chronic health conditions has been proven, particularly in the fields of mental health and providing medication management. A recent study found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is equally effective when provided virtually or face-to-face. The study encouraged telehealth CBT to help maximize accessibility to providers.3
America is facing a mental health crisis. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 20% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness each year. In addition, among those with mental illness, 19% also have a substance abuse disorder. Together, depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity each year.4
Worldwide, depression has become the leading cause of disability, yet only 43% of U.S. adults with mental illness received treatment in 2018.4 That shocking figure indicates delayed care that could trigger avoidable but serious mental health consequences. Several barriers impact the rate of treatment, including stigma, society’s lack of knowledge surrounding mental health, and a lack of access to mental health services.
As a society, we have had a stereotypical view of mental illness. Many people associate mental illness with violence or aggressive behaviors. The media has further propagated this notion that individuals with mental illness are evil and dangerous. But most individuals with mental illness are not violent or dangerous; they can and do recover completely from mental illness episodes and live normal lives. This skewed view has fueled fears and driven discrimination. It has also impeded or delayed individuals from seeking care.
An even larger barrier for this group is the disparity in access to mental health providers. Two-thirds of primary care providers report difficulty finding psychiatrists for their patients. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports a 6.4% shortage of psychiatrists with 60% of U.S. counties lacking even one psychiatrist. By 2025 the shortage of psychiatrists is expected to rise to 12% which is equivalent to 6,090 psychiatrists.5
Many more Americans are experiencing increased symptoms of depression, anxiety, and difficulty maintaining sobriety, while simultaneously facing reduced access to support systems and treatment due to pandemic social isolation.6 Business, school, and daycare facilities closures have also added stress and disruption, forcing everyone to adjust to the new norm. For many parents with children, the need to juggle multiple roles of employee, parent, and teacher has had a negative impact on their emotional well-being. Women especially are having difficulty setting clear boundaries between work and family, resulting in greater psychological stress;7 many are putting their careers on hold due to pandemic upheavals.
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