The COVID-19 pandemic spurred an avalanche of mental health issues that have continued to plague the general public over the last 18 months – with the full impact from lingering quarantines, prolonged social distancing, and now the fear over the unknowns of new variants. In fact, nearly 70 percent of working adults say this has been the most stressful time period of their lives.
Fortunately, along with the unprecedented surge in demand for therapy overall, there’s now unprecedented access to mental and behavioral health services with the rapid adoption of virtual care technologies. In a survey from the American Psychological Association (APA), only 20 percent of psychologists incorporated virtual therapy into their pre-pandemic practice. After repeating the survey in November 2020, the APA found that more than 96 percent were regularly seeing patients remotely.
Even though we’ve finally seen telehealth’s democratization, there are still misconceptions about receiving and providing mental health care virtually. It’s time to debunk some of these myths.
MYTH: Virtual therapy is not as effective as in-person care
Truth: When it comes to the most standard offering of behavioral health care, the literature proves that clinical outcomes are comparable in video conferencing conditions as compared to in-person conditions across a variety of interventions and diagnostic considerations. While technology connects us, leveraging virtual modalities like video ultimately enables mental health providers to offer similar levels of connection—even with accommodations made for virtual environments.
MYTH: Virtual therapy is impersonal for providers and compromises patient satisfaction
Truth: For mental health providers, staring at a computer screen all day and working with patient after patient through the intense emotional work of therapy can be draining. Zoom fatigue is real. A provider’s self-care in this context is critical. However, when providers and patients use virtual session time to focus, ask questions and address concerns that emerge due to the modality – like asking for more details instead of relying on in-person observation—research shows that patient satisfaction rates are comparably as high in virtual settings as in they are brick-and-mortar.
MYTH: Virtual therapy puts patients’ privacy at risk
Truth: Nearly 73 percent of health care consumers cited security and privacy of a telehealth visit as important, yet another 35 percent don’t trust the systems their providers use. Yet, a majority of the health care industry now uses electronic health care records (EHRs)—all of which are governed by the same HIPAA privacy laws. So even with the surge in virtual therapy options on the market today—from third-party platforms to services straight from provider organizations—patient health data remains as confidential and secure when shared during telehealth as it is face-to-face with a provider. Seeking out therapy is a big step, and doing so virtually comes with its own set of challenges.
But there are a few strategies to ensure new patients get the most out of any therapy experience—virtual or otherwise.
Find the right provider
To open up enough to make progress in therapy, patients need to establish a sense of emotional safety with their provider. And sometimes, the first person they see won’t always be the right fit. New patients, especially those seeking therapy online, should feel empowered to take the time to find a provider that is well-suited for the type of care they need.
For starters, what type of provider feels most appropriate? Some therapists apply a highly structured approach, while others may be more conversational. Patients should also set a preference on whether they want to speak to someone with a shared cultural or demographic background. What clinical specialties best align with their needs?
A first session should be spent examining whether or not the patient feels a sound rapport with their clinician. If it’s not a good fit, be honest. A good clinician won’t be offended and can make suggestions regarding how to find a better match.
Be prepared to put in the time
When starting any therapy journey, remember that the time spent with the clinician during regular appointments is critical, but the real work and change happens during the everyday moments in between. Research shows that therapy is effective when patients invest their time. To truly be successful, patients must understand that therapy will require active work over time versus a brief appointment shoehorned into busy schedules once a week.
Create a comfortable environment
Through the pandemic, with so many families working, going to school and spending great deals of time together, patients were forced to get creative when finding space to take a call with their provider. Whether it’s from the car or hiding in the bathroom, though, privacy and physical comfort during therapy is important. That’s when patients can feel vulnerable enough to have productive conversations and truly open up to their providers. Find a balance between comfort and certainty that your physical space is private and confidential.
Be engaged and ask questions
Good clinical engagement creates good health outcomes. To establish good clinical engagement, patients must feel safe, connected, comfortable, and confident enough to disclose personal things for the sake of progress and outcomes. While this feeling of safety takes time to build, establishing those feelings remotely requires both providers and patients to come into virtual therapy sessions prepared to ask more questions than usual, show genuine engagement in the conversation and stay attuned to body language and other non-verbal cues that might offer another lens on the clinical interaction.
While the COVID-19 pandemic exposed and normalized the need for increased mental and behavioral health services over the last year and a half, addressing mental health issues as a regular form of their wellness will persist beyond the pandemic. However, as the adoption of virtual technologies continues to open up more access to care, the potential to successfully meet the rising demand for these services is promising. The last 18 months have shown us that providers are making huge strides in helping patients from all walks of life facilitate their own care virtually. Even with the challenges we are still experiencing in the current pandemic, it’s an exciting time for the evolution of mental health care.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com