The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is probably the hardest thing to handle these days. It’s still not sure when this crisis will end or how bad things might get. The fear and uncertainty allow us to easily catastrophize and spiral out into overwhelming dread and panic. However, even in the face of this pandemic, there are many things that we can do—primarily, to manage our anxiety and fears.
Research from HR services firm Morneau Shepell recently examined the outlook of workers in Canada. According to HRD, an online site that examines the issues at the forefront of the human resources industry, the findings revealed that about 81% of Canadians said that their psychological health has been negatively affected by the pandemic. Some of their concerns include the financial impact of the outbreak (55%), fear of contracting the virus (42%), fear of a loved one falling ill/passing away (42%), and uncertainty over its impact on the family (33%).
“These findings confirm that COVID-19 is not just an infectious disease issue – we are looking at a mental health crisis,” Paula Allen, senior vice president of research, analytics, and innovation at Morneau Shepell, said.
However, with lockdowns implemented in many countries along with several travel restrictions, it’s difficult for someone to seek professional help. Thus, many governments and organizations turn to digital or virtual therapy to help their citizens deal with fears and uncertainty brought by the pandemic. Morneau Shepell, for instance, is now working with the government of Manitoba in introducing an online platform called AbilitiCBT for people dealing with COVID-19 anxiety.
Nigel Branker, president of health and productivity solutions at the firm, said that the clinical efficacy of the program involves a combination of online modules and ongoing guidance and support from a therapist. “People complete the modules at their own pace, while the therapist monitors progress, and regularly checks in along the way. This structured approach can help create a sense of normalcy in these otherwise uncertain times,” he said.
A Growing Wave of Online Therapy
During these trying times when people are not allowed to go out and meet others, technology has become more evident and beneficial. Many medical professionals have seen an increased number of patients in telehealth. Telecounseling, also called teletherapy, has become a more sought out option for those living with mental health conditions. The use of this kind of technology has increased over the past few years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the number of telehealth “visits” among rural Medicare recipients alone since 2004 increased from about 7,000 to nearly 108,000 in 2013. The CDC anticipates the telehealth industry being a $30 billion dollar niche of the healthcare market in the near future. The emergence and continuous development of smartphones has created new opportunities for app-based companies to offer more accessible and affordable therapy.
The growth of virtual therapy isn’t surprising. According to the American Psychological Association, the largest scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the US, the ease and convenience of scheduling a therapy appointment online and talking with a therapist from the privacy of one's own home is a huge draw for consumers. For instance, BetterHelp.com, an online therapy website, offers members the option to schedule live video and phone sessions with their therapists. Many experts call this telepsychology, which has been around in one form or another for more than 20 years, used most often by members of the military.
Research studies, many of which are listed in bibliography format by the Telemental Health Institute, revealed that asynchronous messaging therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy. The success of this platform may also encourage patients to seek face-to-face therapy, Megan Jones, PsyD, adjunct clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, said. "It can really be a nice first step in treatment for someone who needs more intensive therapy," she added.
Even mental health professionals can benefit from this setup. Lindsay Henderson, PsyD, assistant director of psychological services at Boston-based telehealth company American Well, said that online therapy can help them maintain a better work-life balance. "From the provider perspective, the flexibility of practicing telemental health fits so well into my life and allows me to better meet my patients' needs. I'm not at a point in my life where I want to be going to an office at 8:30 in the evening, but I will happily go to my home office, lock the door and see a patient at that time,” she said.
Virtual Therapy During a Pandemic
UK resident Amanda, who preferred to remain anonymous, has been receiving ongoing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for four months to treat anxiety and low mood. With the enforced lockdown, she and her therapist decided to communicate remotely instead. Amanda found Zoom to be quite useful these days. “I find digital contact and video calls much easier and less anxiety-inducing. Doing it from the comfort of your bed or sofa is actually brilliant – and I can take down as many notes as I want without someone looking at me do it,” she said.
A lot of people who need therapy have switched to digital formats. The role of virtual therapy has become more important as COVID-19 exacerbates pre-existing conditions like OCD, health anxiety, PSTD related to being in hospitals, and traumatic bereavement. According to Medical Device Network, an online site that covers medical technology news and in-depth analysis, digital mental health solutions have several unique benefits. For instance, these platforms are discreet, meaning people can avoid the perceived stigma that can come with being seen walking into a therapist’s office.
Even pre-coronavirus, soaring statistics indicate that an increasing number of patients are being referred for mental health treatment. UK Google searches, for instance, revealed that ‘calling in sick mental health’ increased by 4,400% between 2016 and 2019. “We believe that the evolving situation will facilitate greater adoption of digital health solutions across the whole of the UK. Many services will have the opportunity to experience first-hand the benefits of flexible treatment times and convenient access for patients that digital modalities provide. Our results also demonstrate that the clinical outcomes for our patients are equally as good as face-to-face therapy,” Ieso Digital Health head of partnerships James de Bathe said.
According to NewScientist, a weekly English-language magazine that covers all aspects of science and technology, John Torous at Harvard Medical School said that virtual therapy has exceeded people’s expectations in the last few weeks. For those who can’t or don’t want to speak to a real person, experts say that there are apps that provide meditation training and breathing exercises.