How virtual therapy is revolutionizing the future of mental health treatment
Prior to 2020, the majority of psychologists treated their patients in person. While virtual therapy was sometimes offered as an accommodation, 64 percent of practitioners said they had never treated patients via telehealth before the pandemic, according to a study by the American Psychological Association (APA).
But COVID-19 changed everything. Suddenly, the simple act of breathing in public spaces felt dangerous. Millions of Americans struggled to cope with contagion panic, layoffs, disrupted routines and isolation and began reaching out for help in record numbers.
Therapists were faced with two difficult options: Risk their safety to treat patients in person or move their entire practice online with little-to-no experience providing telepsychology.
This was the situation Dr. Melani Natneil found herself in as a practicing licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). Dr. Natneil is also an assistant professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts Global and had to move all of her classes and caseload to a virtual environment in a matter of days.
Keep reading to find out how Dr. Natneil forged a new way to connect with clients in the last 18 months as a mental health provider during a global pandemic.
Understanding the traditional delivery of in-person therapy
Mental health practitioners in particular are trained to regard their offices as much more than just a meeting place. For patients, a therapist’s office is a predictable and private space that allows them to relax and focus on their session.
“So much of our field work focuses on in-person therapy: the client arrives and enters into this sacred and safe room that you provide for them,” Dr. Natneil shares. She goes on to highlight, however, that research suggests the most important aspect in providing care isn’t the space, but the relationship between therapist and client. Knowing this fact gave her the confidence to move forward.
“The pandemic forced us to jump right into something that a lot of us had thought about but didn’t have the capacity to provide or the backing from insurance companies,” she explains. “Change is scary, even for clinicians.”
Activating a rapid shift to virtual therapy
To meet the demand for mental health services during the pandemic, insurance providers responded quickly and changed regulations to make it easier to provide online therapy via platforms like Zoom, Google Meet and Teams. This helped ensure that individuals had access to treatment and support during a time they needed it most.
Dr. Natneil admits she had concerns about online therapy, as did many of her peers. Their most pressing questions included:
- Are patients going to be interested in this kind of service?
- Is it possible to build a strong bond with my patient over video?
- Will I be able to effectively provide the care they need through this method?
Fortunately, most of these fears turned out to be unfounded. “As soon as we started offering telehealth sessions, referrals came flooding in. The demand was shocking for us as providers,” Dr. Natneil recalls.
Virtual therapy provided an umbrella of security that offered comfort and connection to both patients and clinicians during those first scary months. We weren’t dismissing how strange or awkward things were — we were processing those emotions and allowing them to exist without judgment.
Just two months into the pandemic, 85 percent of psychiatrists surveyed by the APA were handling over 75 percent of their caseload via teletherapy. These professionals also reported that telehealth appointments resulted in improved access to care, reduced no-show rates and a high rate of patient satisfaction.
Weighing the pros and cons of virtual therapy
Like any modality, telepsychology comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. If you’re considering online therapy, it’s important that you find the method that works best for your unique circumstances and goals. “Humans are vulnerable; we need guidance to maneuver around difficult emotions. However, it is important to note that there is no single way or ‘fits all’ manual that applies to everyone. Everyone's journey is different” Dr. Natneil affirms.
Let’s discuss a few crucial considerations below.
Benefits of virtual therapy:
- Convenience: The ability to meet with a therapist from the comfort of your own home, vehicle or other private space is a game changer for many patients. Parents can squeeze in a session during nap time and nurses on the frontlines of the pandemic can call in between patients.
- Reduction in perceived barriers to care: If you’re someone who is already struggling with anxiety and depression, the process of finding a new therapist, setting up an appointment and showing up in person can be overwhelming. Many people find it easier to start a relationship via email and hold sessions online, which also leads to higher attendance rates.
- Available for patients with limited mobility: Even before the pandemic, there were millions of people who could not easily attend a regular in-person therapy session. Individuals with disabilities or lack of transportation now have access to the care they need when they need it.
Drawbacks of virtual therapy:
- Inaccessible for patients without internet: For patients who do not have Wi-Fi or reliable access to the internet, telehealth services are out of reach.
- Reduced control over environment: One of the most important aspects of a psychiatrist’s job is maintaining the confidentiality and privacy of the patient. "But with telehealth, therapists can’t always be 100% sure that their patient is alone during their session,” said Dr. Natneil. “This can be especially concerning if the client is at risk of potential abuse.”
- Diminished ability to read body language: Dr. Natneil points out that “Therapists are trained to assess non-verbal cues and behaviors. Yet during virtual sessions, typically only the head and shoulders are visible.” She notes that this is of special concern when working with vulnerable populations such as children, elders and dependent adults.
The future of mental health treatment
While there’s no way to predict the future with absolute certainty, the sentiment from patients and clinicians is clear: Online therapy is helpful and should remain available even after the pandemic ends. “I don’t foresee telehealth going away,” Dr. Natneil shares. “I’m very hopeful that this will continue to be offered because the overall understanding is that it really works.”
However, she advises that there is a growing need for more research in this field. Because the virtual therapy boom is such a recent phenomenon, there’s still a lot of questions. “As clinicians, we need to come together, collect data and figure out new ways to measure progress and outcomes” Dr. Natneil states.
Any efforts that prove to be effective in reducing the stigma associated with mental health should be promoted. Dr. Natneil observes that "As a society, we experience an overwhelming sense of shame around mental health and it’s the largest barrier to accessing care.” She goes on to say that “We must do better and normalize the idea that being human and managing emotions is tough. It is ok not to be ok and to ask for help along the way."
Meeting a growing need
Even before Coronavirus, there was a shortage of licensed therapists in the United States. The pandemic has only increased the need for mental health practitioners and shows no signs of slowing down. Many people are still in survival mode and won’t have the ability to deal with post-traumatic stressors until the threat of COVID-19 has waned. When they are ready to start healing, talking to a trained professional could make a world of difference.
To learn more about the many different professionals who make a career out of helping others, check out our infographic “A career with impact: 8 mental health jobs to consider.”
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