Coronavirus has rocked the nation with a year of restrictions, bans, missed meetings and events, isolation, and a staggering loss of more than half a million Americans. As the pandemic extends for a second year, Americans struggling with increased rates of depression, anxiety, and insomnia are seeking mental health support, and providers are working hard to keep up with demand.
When the pandemic first started, Dr. Mary Alvord that there was an almost instant increase in those seeking treatment for anxiety and depression. Alvord is a psychologist and director of Alvord, Baker & Associates in Rockville, Maryland, a group of 19 clinicians primarily focused on children, adolescents and families.
“I think everyone was just in a state of disbelief that this was going on so quickly and so dramatically,” said Alvord. “That first rush was fear of the daily uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen [regarding] the pandemic. And I think it led to a lot of sadness. “
Psychologists like Alvord report that they have seen more patients with anxiety and depression in the past year, and most say they treat patients remotely via telemedicine. Last fall, a third of psychologists said they saw more patients since the pandemic began, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
Among psychologists treating anxiety disorders, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed by APA reported an increase in demand for treatment, while 60% of patients treating depression saw an increase. A similar increase in demand for treatments for traumatic and stress-related disorders and sleep-wake disorders has also been reported.
“We had a waiting list of about 187 people,” said Alvord. “We seem to take it down and then we go up again.”
Telemedicine use has expanded thanks to states-issued emergency directives to improve access to services during the pandemic, the APA said. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid have also revised the rules to allow for expanded services via telemedicine. The group is pushing for this access to continue for at least six months after the federal government declares the pandemic is over.
There are still many barriers to treatment, including the number of mental health professionals available, cost, scarring, and time, but the expansion of telehealth has improved access to care for many.
“You can see a therapist in your own home, you don’t have to rely on transportation or childcare. I think that helps having access to it once you’re under treatment. But we still have a pretty big problem with the health system with having enough providers for the people who need them, “says Dr. Vaile Wright, Senior Director, Healthcare Innovation at APA.
However, Wright noted that the shortage of healthcare professionals was a long-standing problem prior to the pandemic. “Even if we do things like lower the retirement age or increase the workforce, we will never meet everyone’s needs,” he said.
The pandemic may have fueled the growth of telehealth services, but the course is expected to continue. According to financial data firm PitchBook, the global telemedicine market beyond therapy is expected to reach $ 312 billion by 2026, more than quadrupling from 2019 levels. A total of $ 1.8 billion was invested in virtual health companies in 2020, including Doctor on Demand and MDLive, both of which offer virtual therapies, PitchBook analysis shows.
Frontline health workers, parents of children under the age of 18, and fathers – more than mothers – have been seeking treatment lately, according to the APA. It’s too early to tell if those who sought treatment during the pandemic will continue to have access to care once life returns to normal, but advanced telehealth could help.
“I think the convenience consumers expect will encourage them to stay in treatment rather than having to come back in person. So that’s going to be a big component,” Wright said. “I also think that if individuals are unable to manage the stress they are experiencing, we will have long-term mental health consequences.”
In particular, Wright noted that key workers – including frontline healthcare workers – are most vulnerable to parents with children under 18, people from color communities, and younger adults with high levels of stress and stress.
Alvord of Alvord, Baker & Associates is also committed to expanding telehealth and has trained 10,000 mental health professionals on how to do this effectively and ethically over the past year. One silver lining for the extreme challenges facing the world over the past year is that the conversation about mental health has come to the fore.
“We’re all in it together, so the message is, ‘You are not alone,'” she said. “The mental health stigma has really gone because it’s okay not to be okay. There are normal levels of stress that is a part of life and the grief and loss and sadness that come with it.”