By Ray Costantini, Bright.md
Managing mental health issues are hard, for patients and for over-burdened providers. Although the stigma of mental and emotional health issues are beginning to subside, even those ready to get help encounter discouraging roadblocks: a lack of timely appointments because of a shortage of doctors, the high cost of care, the lack of insurance coverage for mental health services and the challenging emotional burden of acting on the symptoms of depression.
What people often don’t realize is that there’s another option: virtual mental health services. Easily accessible and much less expensive than in-person visits, online care enables patients to access the resources they need to get help and address their challenges. Virtual services also allow people to get help for their mental health concerns from the privacy of their own home. That often makes taking action easier and has been shown to help them be more open and honest about what they're experiencing, compared to a face-to-face with a provider.
The Need Is Great
It’s tragic that mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18-44, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
The shortage of qualified mental health professionals makes the problem even worse. There are only about 28,000 psychiatrists in active practice in the U.S. (just one per 12,000 people), according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM). And the majority of them practice in California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida. Across the U.S., 77 percent of counties have reported a severe deficiency of psychiatrists, according to a Merritt Hawkins report. AJPM backs this up, noting that 65 percent of non-metropolitan counties don’t have any psychiatrist, and almost half don’t have a psychologist.
The Role Of Internet-Based Services
Providing virtual healthcare via the internet or online portals isn't new. Enterprising medical practices and specialists have leveraged telehealth to varying extents to provide care to their patients, no matter where they reside. However, the role of telehealth has expanded over the years, offering effective alternatives for addressing acute illnesses and managing chronic diseases through devices, like home computers, tablets and cell phones, that are an important part of consumers’ daily lives.
Online offerings for mental healthcare are expanding too, with the introduction of internet-based diagnosis, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other services. Benefits of virtual mental healthcare include:
Can Telehealth Bridge The Care Gap In Mental Health?
Many providers and payers think so. Practices are increasingly adding virtual mental health services to their offerings, and insurers are ramping up their support of telehealth initiatives.
Early entrants in virtual care programs have shown how to move past roadblocks by enabling patients to get care in a way that is comfortable, convenient, and accessible. The most successful ones have enabled patients to access care discreetly, securely and on their own terms, without the waits for appointments, long drives and other factors resulting from the shortage of mental health providers nationwide--issues video visits alone haven’t solved.
As these telehealth programs continue to expand, they will give those who struggle with depression, anxiety and other issues an effective way seek treatment, and in the process benefit society by address our nation's growing mental health epidemic.