The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an influx of demand for mental health care. People struggled with depression, anxiety, social isolation, and fearful conditions brought on by the pandemic. In 2020, more than one in three Americans reported the pandemic having a serious, negative impact on their mental health. As COVID has lingered, so too have high anxieties.
This has increased the pressure on the already strained mental and behavioral care field. Simply put, there is a supply-demand imbalance. There is limited availability for patients to find treatment from licensed professionals. Access is at the heart of the problem: more than one-third of Americans live in areas that lack adequate access to mental health professionals.
Telebehavioral care—when direct clinician-to-patient care is delivered online—has helped reduce these treatment gaps. The pandemic has shown that when widespread adoption is possible, telebehavioral care brings immense value for both increasing patient access and supporting healthcare professionals through virtual collaborative care.
Telehealth has been a vital resource for people across the country, especially for those who have needed mental health support that’s covered by their insurance provider. Telebehavioral health has been a lifeline for patients everywhere, including underserved patients – like the thousands of children living in rural and urban communities who don’t have access to a child psychiatrist.
The expansion of mental telehealth provides a bridge between those who are seeking help and those who are available to provide help. Insurers like Aetna are doubling down on evidence-based telebehavioral health by providing mental health services to members in all 50 states. An expansion like this benefits patients at home by helping them schedule time with a licensed psychiatrist, therapist, counselor, or psychologist in as soon as two days. Telebehavioral care has also provided support for healthcare professionals and hospitals nationwide.
When mental health providers aren’t available and people are experiencing a mental health crisis, patients often turn to the only remaining available resource: the emergency department. To alleviate this pressure, recently hospitals in rural communities like Sidney Health Center in Montana and VCU Tappahannock in Virginia have increased their on-demand telepsychiatry services for patients and support for onsite staff. Meanwhile, United Physicians, an independent physician organization of 2,000 providers in Detroit, has already made it halfway to its treatment goals in just three months in part due to virtual collaborative care.
The increased availability and access to at-home behavioral care was made possible by laws and regulations that were temporarily changed or adapted to accommodate widespread telebehavioral health treatment. This increased legal flexibility also stretched to clinicians as many states temporarily removed the requirement that forced mental health providers to be licensed in the same state where their patients reside. Bill proposals in states like New Jersey are important for giving patients and doctors the incredibly valuable tool of telehealth for good.
The rising demand for mental health professionals isn’t predicted to go away any time soon. Array is a covered insurance benefit for 87 million people and counting, proving insurers are responding to the increased need for mental health services by expanding telebehavioral care as a covered benefit for their members.
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