How social media will change mental health care

Social media is changing how we communicate and how we define  “relationship.” I was speaking to someone last week who said to me, “Social media isn’t coming it’s here!” He’s right.

And while many voices in our professional communities are wary about social media, I see positive opportunities at every turn. Here are just 5 ways social media will change mental health care:

1. Professionals will collaborate more. We know our current model of mental health care is fractured and takes place in isolated pockets. Primary care doctors often see signs of mental health issues first. Some decide to prescribe medication, some refer to a psychiatrist, others recommend therapy. But darned if they can find providers that can help their patients effectively and efficiently.  Social media will change this as medical professionals become more comfortable and adept at communicating with one another via various platforms (some password protected) that allow them to communicate and refer to one another.

Also, mental health professionals themselves will learn to consult and collaborate on cases, share research information, and partners on treatment programs.

Finally, the ideal treatment protocol combining mind/body factors will become possible. Physicians and therapists can get to know each other in the social media space, understand that we are professionals with the same goals and collaborate on bringing exceptional care to our clients and patients. Yes, we will.

2. The stigma and isolation of mental illness will lessen. Current online patient advocacy sites such as Patients Like Me,WeGoHealth and Mental Health Tribe allow people suffering from physical and mental health issues to talk to one another. People can self-identify as someone suffering from a disorder and talk to others with similar experiences and issues about treatment protocols, coping skills and feel less alone, isolated and ashamed.  This process of sharing online will most likely lead to more people seeking the help that they need, rather than suffer in silence.

3. Increased demand for high quality mental health care. This surge of “e-patients” (defined as those patients who are ‘plugged in’ and research, advocate and communicate online) will result in an empowered group of patients and clients. They will have access to research findings once only found in professional journals and will have knowledge of treatment trials worldwide (not to mention the option to participate in many of them from a distance). This will result in current and potential clients asking providers educated questions about their expertise, treatment philosophy and expected outcomes.

Many health care professionals feel ambivalent about this movement. We are used to being the “experts”and our patients being passive consumers of our expertise. The e-movement levels that playing field and health care partnerships will be the result.  This will keep those of us who do effective work in business and those who offer subpar services unable to stay solvent.

Stay up-to-date on what’s going on in your specialty. You never want a client quoting research in your office that you should know about.

4.  Ability to offer robust aftercare and maintenance. One of the frustrations with psychotherapy is that once direct treatment is over, gains in functioning often decline and in the worst case, clients’ functioning reverts to baseline after several months or years.  Social media and online technology will allow us to create and provide simple follow up programs and protocols that can be sent out to people daily, weekly or monthly via email, text, audio or video. These could be reminders to take medication, to exercise, eat right, go to bed on time, use a journal, etc.  Simple digital reminders are certainly better than no reminder at all and can be enough to “hold” clients so they don’t regress after investing a lot of time, money and hard work into better functioning.  Even if insurance doesn’t pay for these services, you could charge a monthly “follow up program fee” that could be low cost (say $20-40, for many this is equivalent to  a co-pay).

5. A greater ability to create treatment programs that clients want and need. Currently, when health care professionals try to offer workshops/classes or groups that support clients’ treatment, they are disappointed with lack of interest or enrollment.  Unfortunately, we often offer what WE think clients want and need, rather than what they really want and need.  Social media allows us to listen and discuss with consumers what they would like in terms of service structure and offerings.  Do they want an online support forum or a group at the office? Do they find teleseminars helpful, or would they rather read and e-book?  Are daily follow up texts helpful or would they rather hear from you once a week?

Social media allows us to get an intimate glimpse into the lives of the people we treat.  The more we can offer programs and services that they relate to and want to engage in, the more opportunity we have to help them live healthier lives.

Susan Giurleo is a psychologist who blogs at the BizSaavy Therapist.

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