As COVID-19 isolates patients, telehealth becomes lifeline for behavioral health

As more Americans are urged to stay at home amid the COVID-19 crisis, it’s not just physical health that’s going largely digital—it's behavioral health, too.

Social distancing can go against some of the key advice for treating behavioral health disorders, such as spending time with loved ones and getting outside, said Shilagh Mirgain, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“I think some people can feel quite vulnerable that some of their safety nets or coping methods … may be at risk,” Mirgain told FierceHealthcare. 

Strategies to weather social distancing

Even for those without behavioral health disorders, the necessary social distancing to combat COVID-19 can be stressful and isolating. UW Health's Shilagh Mirgain offered some ways providers can share with patients to maintain connections:

  • Watch a movie with a friend over video chat.
  • Go on a nature walk while keeping six feet of distance.
  • Challenge a friend to replicate an online art tutorial and compare your drawings at the end.
  • Spend time with a pet.
  • Meditate and center yourself in a moment that made you feel loved or cared for (video embedded below).

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services waived certain payment requirements to ease access to telehealth in Medicare, and major national insurers are waving copayments and cost-sharing for telehealth visits related to COVID-19. As such, people seeking psychiatric care are also logging on for video visits in large numbers. 

Aetna is among the plans covering behavioral visits through telehealth, said Cara McNulty, president of Aetna Behavioral Health. The insurer is also working in some states to expand access to mental healthcare.

Janie Jun, Ph.D., associate director of quality and provider strategy at Lyra Health, a mental health benefits startup, told FierceHealthcare that demand for video visits has nearly doubled as the pandemic stretches on. 

Jun said that 85% of Lyra’s mental health visits are now conducted via secure video or telephone calls. 

“This has been a huge topic of conversation our providers and clients are discussing, like, ‘Thank God we’re in the day and age where we have the technology to connect with people,’” she said. 

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Nikole Benders-Hadi, M.D., medical director of behavioral health at Doctor on Demand, told FierceHealthcare that the platforms providers are also making themselves available for additional hours on video visits as patients opt to stay home.

“It’s really unprecedented time for telemedicine and especially for behavioral healthcare,” she said.

Both Benders-Hadi and Jun said that there are plenty of patients signing on for virtual visits who may not be seeking long-term care for behavioral health needs but are instead looking for someone to talk to amid the stress of the pandemic.  

Jun said clients are reporting anxiety around a loved one contracting the virus or contracting it themselves as well as the potential of losing their job.

While tech is playing a key role in ensuring behavioral health patients continue to receive routine care they need, it’s also critical in maintaining social connections that can be critical for them, Mirgain said.

McNulty said it's critical for friends and caregivers to consider the needs of their loved ones who have behavioral health conditions at this time, and reach out.

"Human connection, even from afar, is essential during this time," she said. "Friends and caregivers should be paying increased attention to those that may be struggling with mental health conditions and reach out to provide support."

Mental health patients should be proactive, too, Mirgain said. Be "intentional" in reaching out.

To combat loneliness, patients can plan a standing video or telephone call with a loved one or do activities with friends through video chat, such as having a meal together, she said. Social media offer the chance to reach out for help or seek answers and support.

“People are much more aware of how we are interconnected,” she said. “It’s spurred more intentional ways of really reaching out and staying connected.”