Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we understood that the future of therapy often would be virtual and could be highly personalized. This past year brought the advantages of accessing therapy through phone, video chat, text and other technologies into sharp focus.
A growing need
COVID has triggered a second pandemic of behavioral health disorders: In just 12 months, the percentage of people reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression more than tripled, from 11% to 38%. During the same period, the use of antidepressant medications rose by 7.9%.
A new study published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal found that one in three COVID survivors have been diagnosed with a neurological or mental disorder. Anxiety, depression and other psychiatric conditions were the most common diagnoses, but the study also documented significant numbers of strokes, dementia and other neurological disorders. Like the physical issues experienced by COVID-19 long-haulers, these neurological and mental issues seem to linger.
Removing barriers to care
Lockdowns and social distancing spurred many patients to initiate or switch to virtual therapy, but convenience and ease of access are prompting them to continue.
Virtual behavioral health allows people to connect easily with clinicians without taking time away from work or family to meet in person, in ways that work best for them. For example, patients can communicate with some therapists by text, sending messages whenever they wish and hearing back regularly. Other providers are available by phone or video chat.
Accessing care virtually also can lead people to feel empowered and in control over their mental well-being. It can remove barriers and any embarrassment associated with asking for help, decreasing any sense of stigma they may otherwise feel.
Options for all
Depending on their issues or diagnosis, a patient might be best served by working with a behavioral health coach, a therapist, a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a combination of those specialties. All are available virtually.
At the start of the pandemic, only 3% of behavioral health patients had utilized a virtual therapy visit. Today, 60% are using virtual services.1 That number has remained steady even as the vaccination rate has risen, and we expect to see sustained growth in virtual therapy in the months and years to come.
While a recent survey found that large employers are focused on implementing more virtual care solutions and expanding mental health benefits, the opportunity exists to expand coverage even more. Their members need access to a well-planned benefit that provides the help they need, where and when they need it.
1Cigna Analytics, Telehealth evaluation pre- and post-COVID; analysis of utilization 1/1/20–3/15/20 vs. 3/16/20–6/30/20.