COVID’s Impact on the Behavioral Health Community

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity to grow behavioral health services in communities across the United States. Now, the behavioral health community must rise to the occasion. It is make or break time, and the world is watching. It’s up to behavioral health providers to show people the value of behavioral healthcare and highlight the amazing work they have been doing for many years. People are no longer hiding behind a curtain—it’s time to change the stigma associated with behavioral health care. Here are some impacts the behavioral health community can expect in the coming months, and how to turn them into opportunities in the long run.

Lessening the Stigma

We’ve come a long way since the days of asylums. The community-based mental health system, built in the 1960s and 1970s, and strengthened in the 1980s and beyond, has meant that people with mental health and addiction issues are no longer locked away and hidden out of sight. Yet a stigma has remained.

People with these disorders are often viewed negatively. They may have trouble getting and keeping jobs, friendships, and romantic partners. Despite the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) portion of the Affordable Care Act, many continue to struggle to get consistent access to behavioral healthcare.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made these issues impossible to ignore. Celebrities and the “guy next door” are coming forward with the impacts they are experiencing from extended lockdowns and the fear of illness. Politicians and pundits are discussing the mental health crisis.

This gives behavioral healthcare providers a platform to step up and speak out about what they have to offer. Whether you run a blog or have contacts at your local media outlets, this is the time to explain modern behavioral health and how we can help manage the crisis. Specific things you can do include:

  • Education: Educating the public about mental health issues and solutions is a powerful step that any clinician can take. Speak out whenever you have the chance.
  • Peer services: Get to know people in your community who are struggling, but are not your clients. While you don’t want to become your friends’ therapist, being generally supportive of community members with mental health issues can help break down the stigma.
  • Advocacy and policy change: At your local level, join the fight for mental health parity. Attend town halls, write to your elected officials, and band together with other behavioral health providers to create an amplified voice for change.

 
Implementing Teletherapy

The practice of providing virtual healthcare was slowly making inroads before the pandemic. But the seemingly overnight, shutdowns in the spring accelerated its implementation beyond anyone’s predictions. Telehealth as a whole grew by 59% when the pandemic began, while virtual visits for behavioral health more than doubled. These numbers have settled in slightly, but remain far higher than they were prior to the pandemic. As COVID-19 cases have surged, teletherapy has become the safest way for behavioral healthcare providers to see most clients.

Teletherapy is not likely to disappear after the pandemic ends. It gives therapists the flexibility to work from home some days, or even from the road while traveling. It lets clients attend sessions without worrying about childcare issues, transportation problems, or even social anxiety concerns. It has also opened up the doors to care for people living in rural communities, who otherwise may not have access to mental healthcare.

Yet virtual therapy requires some adjustments from both the provider and the client. Now is the time to start educating both your existing client base and your local community on what to expect. From the technical setup to privacy concerns, you’ll need to update your own knowledge and then clearly communicate everything that clients need to know.

Behavioral Health EHRs are More Important than Ever

Designed for flexible workflows and remote access, a behavioral health EHR is perfect for those providing services from home (and post-pandemic, from remote locations). It gathers the data you need to continue providing top-quality, evidence-based care no matter where you and your clients are located. It also streamlines the billing, documentation, and other behind-the-scenes tasks that could easily bog you down.

Whether you are seeing an individual client or a group, your EHR should make it easy to collect informed consent paperwork, enter notes into each client’s chart, and automatically route the bills to the proper payors, all within a single intuitive platform. Freeing up your time by using an efficient EHR allows you to provide care to more clients, which is sorely needed with the increased demand for services during the pandemic.

Putting It All Together

The COVID-19 pandemic touched off a mental health crisis that is likely to last long after vaccines bring the pandemic to an end. 15.2 percent of those aged 18-25 years in the United States have reported a major depressive episode in the past year, and up to 15 percent of adults in the U.S. reported starting or increasing substance use to cope with pandemic-related stressor emotions.Many people are coping with the loss of a loved one. Anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing. Some families are facing financial ruin. 

But the silver lining in all of this is that the pandemic laid bare the problems that behavioral health has faced for years, from underfunding to the stigma that people with mental health or substance abuse issues still face. Now is the time for the behavioral healthcare community to step up and show the world a better way.

End note: for a more comprehensive look at ways to reduce stigma, check out this resource, 4 Approaches to Reducing Stigma, courtesy of the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

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