Demand for virtual mental health care is soaring. Here are key trends on who is using it and why

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving enormous demand for virtual mental health care services.

Teletherapy providers have seen record uptake since March, and the need for mental health support appears to be growing as patients confront the stress of the pandemic and social crises.

Ginger, which offers text-based mental health coaching, teletherapy and psychiatry, reports that utilization rates rose to their highest level ever in the last week of September. Usage of Ginger's text-based mental health coaching was up 159%, and virtual therapy and psychiatry was up 302% compared to pre-COVID-19 averages, the company reported.

Ginger’s psychiatrists have written 163% more prescriptions for psychotropic drugs, primarily for antidepressants, as compared to pre-COVID-19 averages.

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Telehealth provider Doctor On Demand reports that new patients seeking teletherapy are at record levels: up over 50% in the past six weeks and even higher than the peak of COVID-19-related anxiety in March and April.

Teladoc Health released findings this week that indicate a wider cross-segment of the population is addressing mental health through virtual care.

There has been growth in mental health services across the board, but there has been a notable increase in virtual visits among groups who have not been known for embracing mental health care in the past, namely men, people who use Medicaid and patients over the age of 65, the telehealth giant reported.

Healthcare experts say the persistent issues of 2020—including the economic, health, environmental and societal crises—are impacting the mental health of Americans.

“The overlapping social issues we’ve been experiencing, and the accompanying uncertainties have led to steady rises in people reaching out and seeking mental health support like we’ve never seen before,” said Gustavo Kinrys, M.D. vice president of Teladoc mental health, in a statement.

RELATED: Digital behavioral health startups scored $588M in funding amid COVID-19 pandemic

“In parallel with this surging need, we’re witnessing growing comfort with virtual care, especially among older adults, giving many individuals who may not have sought mental health care in the past an extraordinary opportunity to put themselves on the right path to better health.”

Total mental health virtual care visits for men have been outpacing women both in year-over-year growth and 2020 monthly growth, up 79% since January versus 75% for women, Teladoc reported.

In addition, while Generation Z patients account for 14% of total mental health visits, all age groups have been seeking mental health care at an increased rate. Especially notable are patients over 65, who have seen their visits increase 16% since June, according to Teladoc.

A previously underserved demographic for mental health—the Medicaid population—is seeing significant growth, with the number of Medicaid members with access to Teladoc mental health telemedicine services more than doubling year over year.

RELATED: Teladoc exec on why COVID-19 is proving a 'great equalizer' for mental health care

With increased demand, there also was a significant upswing in behavioral health investment in the past six months. In the first half of 2020, digital behavioral health startups scored $588 million, roughly the annual funding for this segment in any previous year, Rock Health reported.

Here are other notable trends in virtual mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Provider/patient adoption of virtual care (from Amwell data):

  • Before COVID-19, telehealth adoption in psychiatry was 80%, and that jumped to 96% in 2020 following the beginning of the pandemic. And 100% of those in psychiatry reported a willingness to use telehealth in 2020, post-COVID-19.
  • 62% of consumers would prefer a virtual visit for their regular mental health visits, even after it is safe to visit a doctor’s office in person.

Shifts in the types of diagnoses post-COVID-19 (from Teladoc data):

  • There are growing rates of alcohol and substance abuse being noted in women, who now make up 38% of those diagnosed compared with 24% in 2019.
  • Men are seeking care at a higher rate for family and relationship issues than women, with year-over-year visits up 5.5 times among men versus 4.2 times among women.  
  • Member of Gen Z and millennials continue to face growing anxiety issues, now comprising 58% of anxiety and adjustment anxiety disorders diagnoses since March, compared to 53% for the same diagnoses the year prior.

Stress, anxiety causing Americans to sleep less:

  • At the end of July, Ginger had seen a 20% uptick in nighttime conversations with coaches (from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.), pointing to stress and anxiety-related sleep disruption.
  • Big Health, a digital therapeutics company, reports that with the return to school in September and ahead of the presidential election, anxiety levels of incoming users of its Daylight product have returned to and surpassed levels at the beginning of the pandemic in March and April after declining in early summer.