The pandemic-fueled fear, anxiety, and trauma the world has faced during the past few months has dramatically increased the need for mental health care across our country. Because in-person interactions have been so restricted, the value of virtual behavioral health for patients and providers during these unusual times is undeniable. That’s true for people in need of continued therapy services as well as those seeking it for the first time.
While this may be an unusual time, the mental health space is facing a lot of not-so-unusual problems that existed well before COVID-19. A 2019 report found that a behavioral health office visit is over five times more likely to be out-of-network than a primary care appointment, a reality that raises the costs for patients. Foundational challenges of getting access to care, like finding someone who both understands the personal struggles you may face and takes your insurance, or being able to carve time out of your day to commute to therapy, existed before and still exist now.
In the midst of COVID-19 and the associated uncertainty for all of healthcare, the most promising thing I have seen is a growing commitment to democratizing mental health access. The industry has stepped up in support of reaching more of those in need than ever before. The mahogany offices and chaise lounges routinely depicted on television do not fairly represent today’s therapist-patient experience; therapy has been, for the most part, depicted as the domain of the wealthy. Why? Because the burden therapists face when working with insurance companies, combined with the patient struggle to use their full health insurance benefits, has driven this segment of healthcare to a self-pay model with much higher prices.
That structure is a critical barrier to care for many people – leaving even those employed at salaries as high as $100,0000 feeling priced out of access to this important kind of care. Those that seek care find their options are limited. They may not be able to afford self-pay therapy, and most therapists don’t take health insurance. People then end up continuing to struggle without help. Their issues get worse and worse. This is the unfortunate reality for our country’s mental health system.
Telehealth has played a vital role in initiating a transition towards expanding the channels in which more Americans can access healthcare. While the pandemic has provided a grim reminder of how much we rely on others day-to-day, it has also served as another vindication of the strength of technology. With reduced restrictions regarding telehealth this year, the world of online medicine has been revealed. And a lot of previously closed doors have been opened. Many therapists have opened up their practices to different modalities, including video sessions and chat- or text-based, asynchronous therapy. These changes have increased the channels individuals can use to access care for mental and behavioral health.
In the midst of the transition to telehealth during peak days of the pandemic, we have seen evidence that the continuation of care via telehealth is impactful. Within the network created by SonderMind, where I am CEO, patients who were suffering from clinical levels of depression have improved to sub-clinical depression levels in less than 12 weeks, on average. Telehealth is obviously a useful tool in a therapist’s arsenal, but its impact must be measured in relation to face-to-face care and other means of improving clinical outcomes. Like with all other types of healthcare, the accessibility of telehealth must be balanced against the clinical outcomes for patients. At the end of the day, digital accessibility doesn’t mean much if the outcomes don’t prove its worth over the long-term.
Over the past few months, healthcare has seen commercial innovation accelerate to rates rarely ever seen. We have seen government work to remove obstacles to much-needed solutions that can’t come fast enough, and we have seen our neighbors emerge as everyday heroes. From that, we have seen advancements that remind us to be more inclusive and always strive to do better. Among those advancements, mental health is encountering fewer barriers and showing greater reach than ever before. Let’s build on that momentum – for all.
Mark Frank is the CEO and Co-Founder of SonderMind, a national behavioral health marketplace that enables consumers to quickly find and access a trusted, well-matched therapist, while enabling therapists to focus on providing excellent patient care, not worrying about administrative and billing issues.