What to consider when choosing an online mental health provider

The stresses of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are taking a significant toll on not only physical health but also mental health and wellbeing. A recent study published on JAMA Network Open found that symptoms of depression were three times more prevalent among the U.S. adults surveyed during the pandemic than before it. Those with lower income, less money in savings, and exposure to more sources of stress, such as job loss, were at an even greater risk of experiencing depression. The increase in the number of people experiencing depression and anxiety extends beyond adults. Primary care physicians and therapists are reporting more children and teens with symptoms of these conditions as well.

One option that can help you manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety is online or virtual mental health care. There are several potential benefits to this approach, and researchers have found that online cognitive behavioral therapy is as effective as in-person therapy for major depression, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. If you’re in a group at greater risk of suffering complications from the virus and concerned about in-person doctor’s visits, virtual or online therapy may be a good option. It can also be more convenient since you don’t have to travel to a provider’s office to receive care.

There are several options for receiving virtual mental health care, including apps that connect you with a therapist or help build and practice coping skills and stress management techniques. But just as you would when choosing an in-person provider, there are several questions you should ask yourself and potential providers before starting online therapy.

What is your goal? Consider what you hope to achieve under the provider’s care. Do you want to learn skills to help you mitigate and manage your depression and anxiety symptoms? Do you need medication management? Are you hoping to discover an underlying cause for your depression and anxiety? Have you experienced trauma or loss and need help dealing with the experience?

What are your preferences? Does the gender of your provider matter? Do you prefer video or phone-only for your sessions? What approach to therapy are you seeking? Some common approaches to depression treatment include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic therapy. CBT is also used to treat anxiety, and some providers suggest exposure therapy to desensitize the patient to the triggers of his or her anxiety.

What are the provider’s credentials and experience? The titles “therapist” and “psychotherapist” are not legally protected terms in some states, so anyone can claim to be a therapist. Find out if the provider is licensed and if the license is regulated by the state where he or she practices. The provider will need to be licensed to practice in your state as well. Ask about the provider’s training, what degrees she or he holds, and how long he or she has been practicing. If you’re seeking care for a specific issue such as trauma, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or marriage or family problems, ask the therapist what experience he or she has with that issue. If you’re looking for a provider for your child or teen, ask the therapist what experience she or he has treating people in your child’s age group.

Can the therapist prescribe or manage medication? Only psychiatrists or psychiatric nurse practitioners can prescribe medication. If you’re working with any other type of therapist, find out how medication would be handled. Could your primary care physician prescribe and manage your medication, or would you need to be treated by a psychiatrist?

How is your privacy protected during online therapy? Ask the provider if the technology used for your therapy sessions is HIPAA compliant. If you’re using an app, carefully review the security and privacy policies and find out if the developer sells users’ information.

Does the provider accept insurance? Find out if the provider accepts insurance and, if so, whether he or she is in your insurer’s network. Is online or phone therapy covered by your insurance? Will the provider submit claims for you, or will you need to pay out of pocket and be reimbursed by your insurer?

Miles J. Varn is chief executive officer, PinnacleCare, and can be reached on LinkedIn.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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