Telehealth helps meet growing need for behavioral health care

By Emily E. Smith
March 31, 2021

As the pandemic wears on, patients are finding support through virtual care

The immense challenges of the past year have touched everyone in various ways. For many, months of added stress have taken a toll on their mental health.

In the early months of the pandemic, a study by the Boston University of Public Health found that depression rates more than tripled in the U.S. And in a recent study, Mental Health America found that between January and September last year, rates of anxiety rose 93%, while rates of depression increased 62%, compared to 2019.

“The pandemic has been so stressful for so many people, and really tragic for people as well,” says Shannon Gunnip, a licensed mental health counselor with an online practice in New York, Rhode Island and South Carolina. “It's bringing a lot of emotions to the surface.”

Stress, grief and isolation have all led to an uptick in the need for behavioral health services—and since the onset of the pandemic, providers have relied on telehealth to meet that growing need.

In the COVID-19 era, says Dr. Hossam Mahmoud, Regence's behavioral health medical director, “There are all these stressors that are worsening depression and anxiety, and at the same time, there are barriers to seeking care in person. All of that pushed for a spike in the use of virtual care.”

The expansion of virtual care has revealed some clear benefits for both patients and providers, including reducing barriers to care, allowing providers to reach more people in need and delivering self-help tools to help people maintain healthy habits. Behavioral health providers say those benefits will likely help make the shift to telehealth permanent.

Increasing convenience, access

A big benefit of a virtual appointment is the lack of complicated logistics, provided you have a capable device and internet service.

Before the pandemic, most appointments with a behavioral health care provider happened in-person, and getting to those appointments wasn’t always easy. Even the thought of having to fight traffic, find parking or take a long bus ride to reach an appointment deterred some patients, Gunnip says.

“Now, we have back-to-back (virtual) meetings and one meeting happens to be with your therapist, and you're doing it from the comfort of your home,” she says.

Without a long or expensive commute or the need to take time off from work or school, a virtual therapy appointment is also significantly easier for many patients to fit in. Those issues were significant barriers for some patients, and Mahmoud says removing those complications allows more patients to get the care they need.

“This technology is helping patients that otherwise may go months and months without seeing a mental health provider,” Mahmoud says.

The added convenience and comfort of virtual care aren’t small or tangential benefits—they can be important factors that make behavioral health care more accessible.

“There’s a subset of psychiatric patients like ones who have severe PTSD, for example, or severe social anxiety, who struggle with leaving their home,” Mahmoud says. “It becomes such a harrowing experience to go to a hospital-based clinic, where there are sirens and ambulances. For that subset of patients, telepsychiatry or telehealth brings even further value to avoid retriggering the patients’ trauma every time they have to go see a provider in person.”

Making help more available

Telehealth has also increased access to care in another way: Virtual appointments eliminate the commute for providers, too, which allows some providers to see more patients in a single day. For providers who traveled between hospitals, clinics or other on-site locations, getting from one location to another naturally limited their availability.  

Dr. John Kenny, a telepsychiatrist with SOC Telemed and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine, says that virtual care has helped providers gain more time in their day to work with patients.

Regence members can sign in at to learn about telehealth care options and resources available through their health plan. Many Regence members also have access to Boulder Care, a virtual provider offering 24/7 care nationwide for treating substance use issues.

“It has enabled us to have a much broader reach and to treat people in their homes that we otherwise wouldn't be able to,” he says.

Dissolving the geographic distance between providers and patients also helps patients tap into more options, Kenny says. Before the pandemic, it could be a challenge for patients to find a provider who was both right for them and in the right location. But virtual care allows patients to more easily connect with providers who might be in another city or even state.

“The wider the network you give patients to access, the better chance they have of getting connected with a provider,” he says. “That’s definitely a benefit.”

In some cases, telehealth can also help reduce delays in care, which is critical to helping patients in need and intervening before they reach the point of crisis. For example, Kenny says, there’s a shortage

of psychiatrists nationally and they’re not evenly distributed throughout the country. Telepsychiatry helps make psychiatrists available to multiple hospitals around the clock—which means patients who come to the emergency room can get the evaluation they need right away.

The future could bring a hybrid model

Although the pandemic drove the expansion of virtual care, providers say the shift to telehealth is likely permanent, and virtual options will remain even after COVID-19 is no longer a major public health concern.

Gunnip, who began seeing all of her clients via telehealth during the pandemic, says many clients enjoy virtual therapy appointments and even prefer them to in-person sessions. In the future, however, she expects a more flexible model of care, where patients can choose what works best for them.

Mahmoud says he also expects to see more health care tools delivered virtually to fit a variety of needs. Not everyone will need to work with a professional to manage stressful times in life; some may benefit from using self-help tools to learn techniques for relaxation or tips for enhancing their overall wellbeing.

Regence members, for example, have access to free self-support resources such as myStrength, an app that features interactive modules to help manage stress and feelings of social isolation.

Virtual-care tools will only continue to expand with the rise of telehealth services, Mahmoud says, making it easier for patients to seek help and weather challenging times.