Teletherapy's profound impact on mental health during isolation

Teletherapy

Teletherapy's profound impact on mental health during isolation

The impact of COVID-19 has flipped life as we know it on its head; we are isolated within the walls of our homes and have little to no physical contact with loved ones. Many of our favorite pastimes are no longer an option. But our ability to seek support from the comfort of our homes, using telehealth initiatives, can give us the tools we need to cope and eventually move forward.

The novel coronavirus has caused widespread infection, with over 119,588 deaths worldwide, according to John Hopkins University as of April 14, 2020. However, even those who have not been directly affected by the virus are still paying the price. A dreadful amount of people have lost their jobs, many are isolated from their families, and the general uncertainty of the future has resulted in global panic and anxiety. In the United States alone, a record “3.3 million people filed claims for unemployment,” according to The Guardian. This figure beats the previous record of 695,000 claims, which were filed the week ending 2 October 1982.

With livelihoods lost and the end of the virus unknown, it is clear COVID-19 is taking a significant mental toll across the globe. And while it will continue to do so long after the virus is eradicated, we must find ways to support each other in any way we can.

The increased need for mental health support is already evident, with the Australian Government dedicating $74 million to mental health services. The funding will be allocated specifically to services which have come under strain during the pandemic. Beyond Blue’s new dedicated Coronavirus wellbeing helpline received $10 million from the Australian Government and private health insurer Medibank. A further $14 million will go to existing mental health services such as Lifeline and Kids Helpline.

Like many things, the approach to mental healthcare has had to adapt. Thanks to online mediums and telehealth initiatives, mental health practitioners can directly connect with their patients. Using telehealth and other digital services, like email to SMS updates, has become an absolute necessity for counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals.

Due to social distancing laws and isolation considerations, mental health professionals have had to cancel traditional appointments, in favor of online measures—also known as teletherapy.

Some of the uses of teletherapy include:

  • Email to text and other SMS reminders
  • Health education services
  • Remote diagnosis and evaluation
  • Medication e-prescription (telepsychiatry)
  • Encrypted video conference, phone, or text message

JustAnswer is an online service connecting people to various experts, including mental health professionals, in the US. According to a company spokesperson, JustAnswer has already seen a 75% increase in mental health inquiries. And the need for telehealth targeted to the mental health sector will only continue to grow with the pandemic.

Related: 'How are telehealth and telemedicine services helping to tackle COVID-19?'

What do we know so far about COVID-19’s impact on the mental health sector?

In light of the isolation measures put in place amid COVID-19, The Lancet reviewed the psychological impacts of quarantine. The reviewed studies revealed mostly negative psychological effects—most of which were brought on by frustration, boredom, financial loss, and inadequate information.

Many of the studies reported the following symptoms following periods of quarantine:

  • Emotional disturbance
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Low mood
  • Irritability
  • Post-traumatic stress symptoms

The psychological distress caused by isolation is already presenting itself in dedicated teletherapy and mental health services. Services like Talkspace are already reporting a 65% increase in calls and emails for mental health support. They have also implemented an Instagram stories channel and Facebook support group, led by therapists around the United States, to answer any questions and concerns.

How do telehealth sessions compare to in-person therapy sessions?

Teletherapist

Understandably, many people feel hesitant about teletherapy sessions. Especially if they have an established in-person mental healthcare plan. Questions of effectiveness and the ability to connect via digital mediums are often raised. But, during these uncertain times, teletherapy is one of the best options to seek instant and accessible support.

Ken Duckworth, Chief Medical Officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said that for many mental health conditions, “teletherapy has the same effectiveness as in-person therapy.”

While it comes down to personal preference, teletherapy and telepsychiatry are as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy. One study revealed that 96% of telepsychiatry patients were satisfied with their sessions. Another study showed that internet-based depression interventions proved “equally beneficial to regular face-to-face therapy.”

How accessible are telehealth and teletherapy services?

Telehealth and teletherapy are not only beneficial to remote communities or during periods of isolation. These services are often preferred methods of care for the mentally and physically disabled community. Whether a patient is physically unable to commute or struggles with in-person contact, online platforms are providing accessible mental health care for those who may otherwise go without. Traditional, on-site appointments may not cater to a patient’s specific requirements, whether that be verbal, physical or mental ability or social factors. Online services can break these barriers to accommodate for ease and accessibility.

Other telecare services also give accessible platforms to those who have issues with speech and hearing. Voice-controlled technology, like the Talkitt app created by startup Voiceitt, was created with speech impediments in mind. The app converts an individual’s everyday spoken (or typed) input into clear audio or text messages. Apps like this allow for mainstream voice-controlled technology, such as Siri, Echo, and Alexa, to understand commands of the speech impaired. But perhaps more importantly, this technology allows for human-to-human communication. Where there would otherwise be a barrier, these telecare apps give the speech impaired the ability to voice their needs, concerns, and feelings—communication that is often taken for granted.

What services are available to support your mental health during COVID-19?

Text messaging

With the significant spike in people seeking mental health support, established healthcare providers are ramping up their efforts and resources. How are they providing comfort and psychological care to more and more people? With a wide variety of online platforms and technological services.

BeyondBlue

  • Dedicated Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support service
  • Provides a range of resources for support seekers, such as online forums, call centers, plus targeted information, advice, and strategies

SANE

  • SANE Help Centre
  • Connecting you to counselors via their phone and email help center, or online chat service
  • Moderated forums for safe and anonymous mental health discussions

Lifeline

  • Lifeline Text delivered by trained Crisis Supporters
  • 24-hour call center
  • Lifeline webchat

Talkspace

  • COVID-19 anxiety and stress management program, available to all subscribers in the US
  • Unlimited Messaging Therapy on the Talkspace app or scheduled video chats
  • Talkspace psychiatry

BetterLyf

  • COVID-19 anxiety management resources
  • Online calls, emails, chat messaging, and video sessions (available in Australia and the United States)

As we find ourselves living in isolation and unease, we must find ways to connect and communicate. To do this, we are relying on technology and digital services to go about our daily lives and help maintain a sense of normalcy.

Hand shake

While we try to navigate a new normal, prioritizing mental wellbeing has never been more important—and perhaps, never been more accessible. The isolation and uncertainty of where things will end up is no doubt taking a toll. But thanks to technology and the readiness of mental healthcare providers, we can find support and feel connected.

Related: 'Communicating during times of crisis'