Doctors switching from in-person mental health care to telehealth during early pandemic lockdowns facilitated a rise in the number of Americans seeking treatment for emotional disturbances, a recent study found.
Six researchers published the national study of 5.1 million commercially insured adults Friday in JAMA Health Forum. They found that while in-person visits dropped by more than half in 2020, the number of people seeking telehealth services for five mental disorders grew between sixteenfold and twentyfold.
Overall, the rates of Americans seeking weekly care for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, adjustment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder increased by 4% to 14% after March 13, 2020. That was the date public officials declared COVID-19 a national health emergency.
The study confirms that telehealth has expanded Americans’ access to behavioral and mental health services, said lead researcher Christopher M. Whaley, a health economist at the Rand Corp.
“The sustained use of telehealth contrasts with telehealth use for other services and conditions, where telehealth use has declined following an initial uptick in the early months of the pandemic,” Mr. Whaley told The Washington Times. “Limiting access to behavioral health telehealth will likely decrease access to important care for patients.”
The study comes as the medical field reports COVID-era upticks in emotional disorders have overwhelmed the number of psychologists and psychiatrists in the U.S.
“While the demand is outweighing the supply of available therapists at the moment, anything we can do to accommodate the process of seeing a therapist is warranted more than ever,” Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said in an email. “And telemedicine for therapy has achieved just that.”
According to the latest Health Resources and Services Administration data, 158 million Americans lack adequate access to mental health care.
“There are delays and wait times often going into months before someone can meet with a clinician,” said Sarah Scantamburlo, a psychiatric physician assistant at Michigan Mental Wellness and a member of the American Academy of Physician Associates. “This is being observed with prescribers and therapists alike.”
Telehealth has made treatment easier for patients who otherwise avoid it due to logistical hurdles or stigmas about mental illness, she added in an email.
According to the study, the overall rate of people seeking weekly treatment for anxiety disorders spiked by 14% after the switch to telehealth in 2020.
The weekly rate of visits increased by 13.5% for bipolar disorders, 8.2% for adjustment disorders, 6.4% for PTSD and 4.4% for major depressive disorders.
Early research suggests videoconference and telephone visits are as helpful as in-person services for “most people” with such conditions, said clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association.
“Problems such as anxiety, mild to moderate depression, stress, and so forth can be well treated with telehealth,” said Mr. Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University. “The jury is still out for more complicated problems such as schizophrenia, bipolar, autism or problems with multiple co-morbidities. The more complicated and severe the problems, the more in-person services are likely needed.”
More research is needed to show whether telehealth patients are getting the benefits they imagine, said Dr. John Campo, a pediatric psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
“Patients with bipolar disorder and PTSD appear to be less likely to give up on in-person services, which may suggest that patients with more severe disorders value in-person treatment more and maybe think it is more effective, but that wouldn’t be an answer either,” Dr. Campo said in an email.
Many Americans are unlikely to return to in-person mental health treatments anytime soon, medical experts say.
“Telemedicine was underutilized pre-pandemic and the pandemic gave this field an opportunity to really accelerate its growth and demonstrate its potential for delivering care,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “This is a trend that will likely continue post-pandemic.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.