Virtual therapy was already a rapidly emerging industry before the COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak havoc on the lives of billions of people around the world. But now stay-at-home orders and social isolation have made online telehealth services an essential service that seems tailor-made for our times.
This is especially true for online apps that focus on mental health. In the early 2010s, a number of new mental health therapy services emerged from Silicon Valley and other high-tech sectors. Some examples are TalkSpace, BetterHelp, TC Teen Counseling, HealthSapiens, PRIDE Counseling, and Online-Therapy.com.
All of them offer ways to connect via a smartphone, laptop, or home computer with a licensed psychologist, therapist, marriage counsellor, addiction counsellor, and/or other professionals. But these entities are by far not the only game in town when it comes to finding mental health online.
Traditional providers have long recognised the potential and need to provide online services. For example, the Mission Harbor Behavioral Health Center in Santa Barbara offers telehealth services for recovering addicts. The world-famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, has been offering wide-ranging telehealth services for several years. In fact, the American Hospital Association reports that 76% of all hospitals in America offer telehealth through the use of video and other connected technologies, including ‘talk therapy’ via texting.
Now as the world enters its second month of isolation and lockdown, online mental health providers are reporting a surge in users of these kinds of services. Dr Marlene Maheu of the Telebehavioral Health Institute in San Diego said requests for services have been booming.
‘People are flocking to us like never before,’ Dr. Maheu said.
According to a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 45% of Americans say their mental health has been negatively impacted by worry and stress as they cope with the pandemic’s social effects. That includes loss of jobs, income, and social isolation.
Feelings of anxiety and depression lead the way. Other conditions on the rise are substance abuse, low self-esteem, distress, panic attacks, and suicidal behaviours.
For people who struggled with these mental health disorders before the pandemic, the effect is now greatly magnified. More mental health dysfunctions fall out of ancillary situational factors driven by lockdown orders. The most common is domestic violence. The psychological damage endured in these situations can be as dangerous as physical violence between family members.
The situation is aggravated by an inability to travel physically to a clinic or therapist’s office. The obvious solution to mitigate this problem is telehealth or using an online mental health therapy app offered by specialty providers, such as Talkspace, BetterHelp, and their competitors.
Seeking mental health via telehealth comes with several advantages. One is that it can be far less expensive. Many of the online apps charge a fraction of what traditional professional therapists charge for in-office treatment. Another is greater anonymity.
Studies show more people are likely to seek mental health counselling via an online platform because they feel more private and it makes them feel less stigmatised. Third, in most cases, online therapy can be done at any location and almost at any time. For example, a person walking in a park or sitting at his or her kitchen table can conduct a therapy session via texting or video link on a smartphone.
Yet to be determined is the question of capacity. Just as some hospitals are being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, telehealth platforms may face an onslaught of demand if the crisis continues unabated for months to come.
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