Monday, December 4, 2023

How the pandemic amplified the use of digital mental-health services

Things are different. The first quarter of 2020 accelerated many evolutions. Most of us are aware of the massive increase in online commerce, and proliferation of use of video conferencing tools, neither of which are expected to go back to pre-pandemic levels. We have also seen a shift in thinking and expectations regarding the way we work, what we expect of each other, and have unfortunately seen an increase in the mentally and physically damaging trend of isolation in our society. Isolation is one significantly concerning factor in our wellbeing. Additionally, our optimism has declined, our anxiety has increased and the proportion of the working population at high risk from mental health issues increased from 13 percent in 2019 to 34 percent in mid-2021. Further, we have seen an increase in relationship strain, and high-risk alcohol use has increased from two percent to six percent.[1]Even many of those who maintained good mental health are more on edge. We collectively have a higher level of need for mental-health services, and this too is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels in the near future.

While the increase in need is concerning, fortunately the pandemic also amplified the use of digital mental-health services. I use the word fortunately not just because digital mental-health services enabled support and care during the lockdowns, but also because digital mental-health services address several barriers to care that existed well before the pandemic, including:

  1. Stigma. Despite widely available mental-health facts, and the efforts of celebrities, academics and many others, stigma regarding mental-health issues remain a barrier to people seeking care. The unfortunate fact is that many people in our society would never risk physically presenting them in a counseling office or risk having to explain the time taken from work or home to deal with a mental-health need. This needs to change. While change is occurring, we need way to help those who are impacted by stigma, so they see a path to care. Digital solutions offer this opportunity simply by presenting the optionof getting care in a way that is less physically visible.
  2. Time. As critical as our mental health is to virtually everything in our lives, we often sacrifice the important for the urgent until the important becomes urgent. That said, childcare, travel time, work demands are realities of life. The availability of digital mental-health services solves many of these practical challenges. A counselor can be available while you are in your home or in your car in a supermarket parking lot. Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy is available for 10-minute periods to any length of time you have available and at any time of the day or night. Whenever you can spend the time, and whenever you need support, it is there.
  3. Privacy. One of the key benefits of digital mental-health service is the fact that there are a range of digital options. Video counseling, internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy and chat options are available. Chat has proven critical. When one lives with others, works with others and commutes on public transport, private time is rare. Chat allows access to a counselor in a quiet and very private way. The pandemic did not create the challenge of privacy, but the increase in time spent at home heightened the awareness and value of the chat option and well as the comfort with counseling with cohorts who are very comfortable with chat.

Despite all of these benefits, some people feel that digital access to mental-health services is somehow less effective than in-person support. This is simply not true. The efficacy of digital modalities has been established for more than a decade. That said, in-person support may still be preferred for some circumstances for some people. With that, no one should be left behind. There is still value in offering the option of in-person mental health service. We do, however, see greater benefit for more people with increased use of digital mental health in the community and through employer-sponsored services such as employee assistance programs. This is one of the silver linings of the pandemic, which will benefit us all long-term.

[1]The data comes from the Mental Health Index by LifeWorks, which measures the mental health of the working population in a poll of 11,000 individuals each month.


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