The Future of Mental Health Care in the Virtual World

The Future of Mental Health Care in the Virtual World

The way we talk about mental health has changed during the pandemic. Over the past year, COVID-19 and the subsequent mental health crisis have helped decrease the stigma around discussing mental health and have increased awareness of the vast need across the country for access to quality care. And, with the emergency telehealth protocols, we’ve seen an improvement in access to care across the country.

However, we also know because of the pandemic, there’s a higher need for care across patient populations, which will likely persist for years to come.

So what does that mean for the future of mental health care?

We need to keep breaking down barriers to high-quality care

Some of the barriers, thankfully, have been eliminated during the COVID-19 emergency protocols:

  • Insurance payers are reimbursing for virtual care where they weren’t in the past, which signals an improvement in the types of visits that are covered and what’s considered “mental health care.”
  • The philosophy of what is the point of care has been stretched and become more creative so we are providing continuity of care.
  • The stigma around mental health care is improving because of our shared challenge and experiences during the pandemic.

Now, we’re starting to see more and more states make their temporary protocols permanent, which will help behavioral health organizations better incorporate telehealth into their long-term strategies and continue to increase access to mental health services.

On top of these policy changes, I hope that, moving forward, more people will see the incredible need for mental health care and hopefully go into the field. Because, one of our biggest, persistent barriers to care is our ongoing psychiatrist shortage.

Embrace hybrid-models of care as the key to future success

Throughout most of the pandemic, folks have relied on virtual resources to help them connect with friends, loved-ones, and co-workers. But, long-term, exclusively virtual contact can still feel isolating for many people.

As things are starting to open back up, many people are longing for those in-person interactions, which is completely understandable. As a result, many healthcare organizations who pivoted quickly towards telehealth when the pandemic started may wonder how best to move forward.

It’s important to note that there won’t be a sudden change back to the way things were. The transition will be very gradual, and will likely result in a hybrid care model where both in-person and virtual appointments are available.

There will certainly be circumstances where providers want to see clients in person. But, over the past year, we’ve learned that telemedicine can be a fantastic option for certain kinds of care — particularly in the behavioral health space.

As people are slowly getting back to the new normal, there are still unknowns. People will have understandable anxieties about exposures, and there will be a subset of patients who will prefer to continue virtual care. So, a combined approach where organizations and providers offer different kinds of care will be important.

Patient challenges and demographics might be different moving forward

The pandemic has uprooted families for well over a year. Across the board, we’ve seen an increased need for caretaking within the home. With school closures, the shift to virtual learning, and parents figuring out how to care for their children while still maintaining their careers, there’s been a substantial impact on families and family life. Now we’re understanding how this long-term trauma is affecting kids, and what the school closures have meant in terms of social and emotional learning for these children.

As schools open back up and we inch ever-closer to “normal,” providers and healthcare organizations on the whole should expect to see an influx of children in need of mental health care, with different challenges than we’re used to.

On an individual level, providers and patients should work to ensure they’re taking care of themselves emotionally

This pandemic has impacted everyone to a degree, and we all can’t help but be affected emotionally and mentally by the past year. There’ve been so many unknowns during this time that it’s just brought emotional wellness into the forefront. That shift has directly improved awareness of mental health needs and decreased any negative stigma that was attached with mental health.

As we look to the future, I hope people will be less hesitant to take care of themselves emotionally and make sure they have the support they need.

However, there are so many resources available now that it can be overwhelming. If you ever have a question about a health or wellness app, ask your healthcare provider what they recommend. One resource that I personally have been recommending is the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has a COVID-19 resource library with recommendations and guidelines for parents and families.

At the organizational level, we should all work to continue improving access and expanding behavioral health care programs

From a healthcare policy and delivery perspective, we’ve seen an increase in depression, anxiety, and substance use behaviors over the past year. But we’ve also had more conversations about the need for treatment as well as the need for access. My hope is we continue in this direction, work to improve access, and continue to think creatively about how to deliver it — whether that be virtual, in-person, or through new, innovative mediums.

It’s important that we pay attention to what our patient populations want and need, and don’t move behavioral health programs and mental health services backwards. Already, more and more states are taking permanent steps to support telehealth and audio-only virtual care. And, patient and provider preferences are here to stay, so continuing with that flexibility will be important for the long term success of your programs.

If you’re hoping to build out a sustainable telepsychiatry program at your organization but don’t know where to start, Iris Telehealth is here to help. Contact us and we’ll help you get all the information you need.

We want to hear from you. Seriously.

Whether you are a health organization looking to expand your telepsychiatry services or a prospective clinician who wants to join the team, we’d love to talk!